Re-opening English Primary Schools Safely from 1st June: mission impossible?

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By Colin Diamond CBE, Professor of Education Leadership
School of Education, University of Birmingham

“Common sense tells us that maintaining a socially distanced classroom with five and six year olds is all but impossible.”

So what do we know now in the light of the latest news on easing the lockdown? Primary schools in England will begin to re-open in some format from 1st of June for Reception, Year one and Year six children. Remember that they are already open for the children of key workers and those deemed as vulnerable. Some never closed over the Easter break.

Every weekend, headteachers are glued to the media as it’s become customary for the government to trail its plans in newspapers ahead of official announcements. Last weekend was unique as they were accused by one major national newspaper on Sunday of being part of a wider conspiracy to obstruct the re-opening of schools. Then a few hours later, having been ‘softened up’ – but in reality ‘wound up’, they were told by the PM that they were on the road to re-opening in just a few weeks.

Tough negotiations between Department for Education officials and the teacher professional associations preceded the announcement. Whilst there was a consensus about bringing back the Year six children to finish their time at primary school, proposals to restart reception and Year One met strenuous resistance. The guidance that followed has been greeted with disdain by heads as it’s obvious that the authors have never worked in early years education.

Common sense tells us that maintaining a socially distanced classroom with five and six year olds is all but impossible. Many heads have told me that they could accommodate a maximum of 6 children per classroom to keep distance. Imagine how that would feel for young children with staff perhaps wearing masks and other forms of PPE? And what is meant to happen at playtime? Young children are naturally tactile and want to hug each other. If they are upset they need a friendly hug from the nearest adult, dusting down and off they go.

We know that heads of infant schools, the real experts on this age group, are most concerned about children’s lack of social development during lockdown. Getting children playing again after months of lockdown is probably the biggest benefit that schools can introduce for 5 and 6 year olds – but implausible in a socially distanced space. Introducing them to an artificially segregated classroom environment could make things worse for some children. And now the cuddly toys must be removed in a move that Agatha Trunchbull would be proud of.

Headteachers are responsible for health and safety in their schools. Only they can determine whether a school is safe to open or partially open for big numbers of children. In addition to securing the well-being of the children they must make sure that their staff are safe. So far, during lockdown, PPE has been available to special school staff and those in mainstream schools providing for children with high level medical and physical needs.

Many staff are apprehensive about returning to schools repopulated with full classes without the necessary personal protection afforded to NHS and other key workers. We also have to add the non-availability of up to 25% of staff who need to self-protect for a range of health reasons.

There isn’t a headteacher in the country who doesn’t want to see their school full of children again. They are mindful that as every week passes, the gap between those children from comfortable, secure homes with screens galore and those who do not have those advantages will widen.

But there is growing professional resistance to schools being put on the front line to re-booting the economy without full consideration of what’s involved. Many are asking why England might look so different from Scotland and Wales in three weeks’ time where the ‘stay at home’ policy has been endorsed by the devolved governments.

There is now an opportunity to digest the government advice and reach a position that headteachers can support which offers good social and learning experiences without compromising safety. That cannot, right now, involve a mass return of young children to school.

2 thoughts on “Re-opening English Primary Schools Safely from 1st June: mission impossible?”

  1. Thank you! I am an early years manager at an academy school. Everything that the government suggest I need to do to minimise risk to children and staff involves creating an environment that is counter-intuitive to my beliefs and practice about education for young children. I would go so far as to say the experience that would be provided would be harmful to them. For example – we have, as a whole school – declared our intention on the children’s return is to prioritise well being above curriculum. I am so pleased to be working in such a school. However, we will need to split the children into small groups of 15, place them with an unfamiliar member of staff (who may not have had any early years experience), send them to an unfamiliar classroom (that is resourced and laid out for older children) and then deliver a very prescribed set of activities to create an artificial social distance with extremely limited resources. We could indeed play the mission impossible theme in the background to create an even more unsettling atmosphere! I am sure that this situation will improve not their well being, but add to their confusion about school and our ‘new’ covid-19 society. I’d challenge anyone to leave a 5 year old crying at leaving his or her mummy on the first morning without comforting them. I will not do that regardless of the risk.
    Regarding teachers and education staff, the government led us to believe we were thought of as one of the nations heroes – caring for children of key workers. Big clap for us! Now we know the truth. We are dispensable. The risk of us (and the children) contacting covid-19 is worth the price of getting everyone back to work sooner.

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