Flipping school

Never in the field of schooling has so much effort been expended by so many for so few. Am I still allowed to reference Churchill? I’ve lost track.

In fact, I’ve lost track of everything over the last 11 days. The task of bringing just two year groups back into school for a day a week each has consumed almost every waking hour. The six of us on our senior team have worked solidly on this at the expense of almost everything else. From Monday, we will have about 70 students on site each day. You would think we were organising our own Glastonbury.

Not only is this task much harder than most would imagine, it is also far more complicated. Whether it is carrying out individual risk assessments for every vulnerable student and member of staff, producing personalised timetables for Year 12 students, writing and consulting on a twenty page risk assessment, writing pages and pages of infection control guidance, planning queuing systems, covering the entire school in signage and floor markings, running virtual briefings for staff, developing new protocols for attendance, behaviour and safeguarding, reading, digesting and incorporating dozens of DfE guidance documents (and every bloody update), walking subject leaders through how they will manage students and working arrangements in their departments, gradually building the confidence of students and parents to persuade them that returning to school is safe and worthwhile, counteracting the slagging schools are getting in the media, responding to every request to inform multiple interested parties as to what we plan to do, why, and why we can’t do it a bit quicker, calming nerves, dissipating disputes or catching the balls being dropped, we have definitely earned a cold beer tonight.

11 days, 10 hours of planning meetings and over 500 hundred hours of my team’s time later, and we are ready to go!

Over the next few weeks, we expect 95% of our Year 10 and 12 students to come into school. This is an amazing achievement which speaks of their commitment to education and their trust in us. When they arrive they will be greeted with a smile, support, and a professional staff ready to begin to pick up the pieces of their lost weeks of schooling.

Scaling up

I tell you all this not to gain your admiration or sympathy, but to make the point that this is not a sustainable way to run a school. So far, we have planned two weeks of tutorials for Year 10 and three weeks for Year 12 – between three and five hours in school each week for each student. Every time we invent provision from scratch in this way there is an enormous investment of time; time which could have been spent refining and improving the remote education provision which remains the predominant form of education for students. One thing I know for sure is that we cannot keep re-inventing school. Come September, we need a model which is going to be sustainable for more than a few weeks. What might that model look like?

The prevailing wisdom seems to be that schools will start small and scale up in-school provision, such that they will gradually increase the number of students and the amount of time they are in school until… hey presto!…every child is back in school full time. This idea is intuitively appealing, but I’m here to tell you that (like many intuitively appealing ideas in education) it is a bad idea.

My contention is that a ‘gradual return’ approach is much worse in terms of overall educational effectiveness than a ‘sudden flip’ approach.

The school recovery wave


This crude drawing sort of represents my thoughts about school recovery. The red wavy line represents overall school effectiveness as a greater number of students are in school for a greater proportion of the week. On the far left, all students are at home all of the time – 100% remote learning provision. The horizontal axis represents the overall effectiveness of a school’s remote learning provision. As the number of students attending school for part of the week increases (like it will for Year 10 and 12 over the next few weeks), the overall impact of the school’s efforts increases a little. However, beyond a certain point, this effectiveness declines to a point (below the line) whereby the overall effectiveness of the school’s provision is worse than it would have been with all students at home all of the time. Once the school reaches a point whereby it can accommodate most students for most of the time, the quality of provision rapidly increases until all students attend school all week, and the pre-pandemic service resumes.

In other words, what I am suggesting is that, beyond a very limited return of students to school, the declining standard of provision for students not in school outweighs the benefits for those in school. The opportunity cost of ‘mid level blended provision’ is too great to justify: the overall quality of education gets worse in this middle ground before it gets better.

If correct, the implication of the above is that it is better to not gradually increase the amount of time students are in school, as opposed to studying at home, but instead flip from one extreme to the other when it is safe to do so.

Why might this be?

Social distancing

The first factor to understand is the effect of social distancing arrangements on staff deployment. Whilst the two-metre distancing rule remains in place it is possible to have about a third of the number of students in a classroom. So, a typical secondary school class will need to be split three ways. The logical conclusion is that, to deliver lessons to the same number of students, you need three times as many teachers.

To model how this scales up across a school, let’s imagine an 11-16 school with equal sized year groups in years 7 to 11. To bring in one year group full time (say year 11) you would normally need (all else being equal) around 20% of your teachers – one of five year groups. To achieve this with 2 metre social distancing in place, you must commit around 60% of your teachers to delivering lessons for just 20% of your total students. To bring in two year groups for full time schooling under these conditions, you need 120% of your normal workforce. Alternatively, if you bring in every year group for one in every two weeks, you need 150% of your usual teaching hours.

This are very crude calculations based on many unreliable assumptions, but the general ratios broadly hold. In short, you can’t scale up beyond having about a third of your students in full time, or all your students in one third of the time, with current social distancing rules in place.

And even if you do so, you are deploying all your teachers fully, so how is the remote learning for the two-thirds at home being delivered?

What happens if we relax social distancing, as is now being discussed? Reducing the distance to 1.5 metres means you can get more like half, rather than a third, of students in a typical classroom. This means you could have all students in for half the time, or half the students in for all the time. A one week in, one week at home, model looks neat and manageable, but you are still left with the conundrum of who is delivery the remote learning? At best, you could squeeze in the odd online tutorial and set a load of work, but teachers would not have the time to offer any real-time support. This may prove more effective than predominantly remote learning, but there is a fly in this ointment: you may be able to maintain 1.5 metres social distancing in a classroom, but there is no way you will achieve this before/after school and at lunchtime. Even with staggered lunches (which would require a redesign of the entire school day and timetable model for most secondary schools), our school would need at least a quarter of a kilometre queue to get even a fraction of students through the canteen. And when it rains… well everything goes to pot.

Given how thirsty in-school provision is in lapping up teacher time under conditions of social distancing, and given the impossibility of enforcing these rules with anything more than a very small number of students in school each day, the logical response is to keep in-school provision at a very low level until the rules can be scrapped. Time might be better spent everywhere.

Getting good at remote learning

Another reason for not getting too distracted by ambitious plans to bring students into school is that we are getting better at remote learning all the time. There remain many barriers to doing this really well, but one of the reasons we have not yet overcome all of these barriers is that we have all viewed this as a short term solution. For example, had remote learning only lasted a few weeks, it would have been wasteful to equip every student with a laptop and ensure they have good broadband access. Returns on spending time training teachers in screencasting, broadcasting and developing interactive materials are also small if lockdown eases within weeks or months. However, if we can commit to remote learning as the de facto form of schooling for an extended period, we can go hell for leather at developing capacity and expertise. This also applies at a national level where, despite valiant efforts by those such as Oak National, we have a very under-developed infrastructure. A National Virtual Education Service would be a tremendous resource, the benefit of which would stretch well beyond the lifetime of this pandemic. There are also huge potential benefits for schools, teachers and students becoming really good at remote learning – enhancing whatever in-school provision is possible for many years to come and leaving students with valuable independent learning skills. I am not suggesting that remote learning is in any way preferable to face to face schooling, but rather than invest time in blended provision that will reduce the overall quality of  schooling, why not put our effort into really getting good at a new form of education?

To do this, we need to avoid absorbing the time of school leaders at all levels in planning and re-planning different versions of in-school/remote learning schooling. Until we are able to go back to school fully, decide on a sustainable model and develop expertise in delivering this model, rather than constantly re-designing it.

There are also other aspects of remote schooling that we need to get better at, but which will require considerable time and thought. For those that are struggling most – due to learning difficulties or home circumstances – we need to protect the capacity to provide more structure, hand holding and input. This won’t happen if we keep distracting schools in efforts to ‘scale up’ in-school provision. With greater stability, we can find the space and mental capacity to think carefully about what exactly is needed to meet the needs of this minority.

September spawned a monster

I would be foolish to predict what schooling might look like come September, or to suggest the ‘perfect’ model for blended learning (if there were such a thing). But if we can’t have most of our students back for most of the time, I know that we need three things: clarity, stability and resource. My preference is for normality, but if that remains out of reach then I would like to see every year group back in school for a small amount of time in September (perhaps a day each week?) and a co-ordinated, well resourced, sustained effort to make the time they are at home as productive as possible. The worst outcome for our students will be more obfuscation, delay, indecisiveness, paucity of resource and last minute, back of the envelope, conflicting policy making. And we don’t need a gradual return – wait for the right moment, then flip!




2 thoughts on “Flipping school

  1. Thank you for this post. It has eased by headache to know that others are thinking in this way. I look forward to reading more and think we should plan for that National Virtual Education Service.


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