An open letter to the DfE

Dear Department for Education

Thank you for your recent guidance to schools. To be honest, I might not have read it, and if I did I doubt I digested it very well. As a headteacher, I’ve been quite busy, and what I have found in recent months is that much of the guidance issued hinders rather than helps me make good decisions (it is also quite patronising in places). I feel really bad telling you this because I am sure there are lots of well meaning people busily writing this guidance. I know that you are also dealing with contradictory and rapidly changing policy. But whoever is spending hours writing this stuff might be better off at home with their families. Honestly, give them a break.

The good news is that there are some really useful things you could do for me. Rather than more guidance, I could really do with four things: information, parameters, stability and a long term plan.

Useful, specific, factual information is in short supply. I’m not a scientist, and I don’t have direct access to the best scientists in the country, so this is where you come in. The DfE could play a very useful role in ensuring schools have the scientific information they need to help them make good decisions. For example, when I open my gates to Year 10 and 12 students on Monday, what probability is there that one or more of them will have Covid 19 when they walk into school? This would be very useful information for all sorts of reasons. Giving me a general, national statistic, or even regional data, is not really sufficient. What I need is data about the areas which I draw students from. Information about infections rates at a local level would enable simple and useful statistics to be shared with schools, such as the estimated number of infected individuals per 1000 people. This kind of information would enable me to make a qualitative judgment about the likelihood of one of my students or staff carrying the virus. I would know if it is ‘likely’, ‘unlikely’ or ‘very unlikely’ that someone is in school and might infect others. This information is both reassuring and useful, as the controls in place can be tightened or loosened depending on local context. I understand that this localised data may not exist, but you have had some time now to work on the behalf of schools to insist that this detailed statistical mapping is undertaken. If it does exist, please would you regularly provide this information in a digestible format for me? This would be far more useful than frequently updated guidance.

Once we have useful information, I would then like you to set out some practical parameters which I can plan against. Arbitrary limits such as ‘a quarter of a cohort in school’ are insufficient and take no account of differing circumstances. To illustrate how nonsensical this limit is, when asked whether schools must only have one quarter of each of Year 10 and 12 in school, or one quarter of them combined, you said the latter. This makes no sense. In terms of infection control, why would a school with a Sixth Form be able to bring in a larger proportion of its Year 10 students (by trading this off against fewer Year 12 students) than a school without? Also, vague statements like ‘keep them in the same group if you can, but in older year groups it may be necessary to mix groups’ are also not helpful. What would be much more helpful is some specific parameters for how many other students an individual may be placed in a class with over a specific period. For example, if you told me that a Year 12 student can only come into close contact (i.e. in the same class with) 9 other students each fortnight, then I could work out that for them to attend lessons in three A Levels (with different groupings) I can only have a maximum of four students in each class at any one time (them and three others). The current parameter of ‘no more than a quarter’ means I could have a Year 12 student in a class with anywhere between 3 and 30 students over a week, depending on how I planned provision. For a limit that sounds really definite, it is actually ridiculously loose and open to interpretation. Combining specific parameters about close contact with localised information about infection rates, it would be easy to provide a sliding scale which allows schools to design provision as ‘tight’ or ‘loose’ depending on the probability that one of these individuals might be carrying the virus.

Once I have been provided with clear information and parameters, I then need a period of stability to design a model of schooling and get really good at delivering it. A term would be a reasonable period of time, which means we could plan over the summer for what school in our local context will look like from September to December. I understand that during that time things will change – infection rates may go up or down. However, I can build this into my model so that I can make changes to the number of students in school at any one time and class sizes without fundamentally changing the model. It is changing the basic model that consumes huge amounts of leaders’ time, and undermines the progress which has been made in refining and developing expertise in the methods of education being delivered. We are also able to snap back to ‘normal’ at relatively short notice, because we know what normal looks like. We have a timetable ready for when all students are in school for all of the time, we have a staffing structure that supports this, and we have all the policies, routines and systems in place for when this happens. What we are not set up to do is keep changing the form of the schooling model every few weeks. This is the most inefficient, undermining and stressful way to run the school system.  So, within the next few weeks, I need to know on what basis I am planning, then I need a commitment that this will not significantly change for some time.

Lastly, I need you to tell me what the long term plan is. Headteachers need a framework within which they will work for the next year, at least. Before the summer, I need to know what examinations will look like next year. If you are going to reduce the content to be assessed then I need to know that so we can plan what to cover next year with Year 11 and 13 students. If you are going to delay examinations, then tell us now. If the papers themselves will be different – perhaps introducing some element of choice as to which papers to sit – then now is the time to share the plan. I also need to know what national strategy there will be to support remote learning (if that is still required) and mitigate the effects on students of a sustained period of not being in school. Will there be a national virtual education service? Will there be a centrally funded and coordinated tutoring service for disadvantaged students? How much of this effort will be coordinated centrally as opposed to pushed back to schools? If you want us to take on the work locally, what are we best placed to do and how will this be funded? We cannot make good decisions locally if we don’t know what the national effort will entail.

That is my wish list: information, parameters, stability and a long term plan. And far less guidance. School leaders have the expertise, contextual knowledge and ‘can do attitude’ to deliver whatever is required. All we need is for government to make it as easy as possible for us to deliver.

I hope you and your families are well.

Yours sincerely

The EduContrarian

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