It's a bit more complicated than you think...
In another ridiculously busy week since the UK went into lockdown, I have spent most of my time on the phone, in zoom meetings and webinars talking to heads, leaders, advisors, teachers, nursery owners and practitioners who are all concerned about the implications of opening schools on the 1st of June, and particularly on how this will affect children in Early Years. Calls and emails start from 5am and go on well into the late evening. I’m writing this on a Saturday and I’ve been working all day because many leaders are too – trying to make sense of the situation and make the impossible possible.
When the Prime Minister announced on the 10th May that schools would be reopening to Reception, Year one and Year 6 on the first of June if it was deemed safe to do so, like most people in education I know, I was shocked.
Firstly only a few days before leaders had been assured that there was no set date in mind and there would be plenty of time to plan for reopening, but more worryingly, the choice of year groups seemed to raise more questions than answers.
Our youngest children require the most support, are less likely to be working at tables which can be distanced, need a greater level of support with hygiene, don’t really understand the concept of social distancing and require a significant amount of equipment which is difficult to keep clean and is frequently shared. Young children learn through collaboration. Something which will be challenging outside the family unit at the moment.
Imagine my surprise when later that evening the DFE tweeted that the Prime Minister had announced that all childcare providers would be working towards reopening on the first of June. I went back to the speech and listened to it a second, and a third time. Not once did I hear anything about childcare providers. The next day the DFE confirmed that the Prime Minister meant Reception, Year one, Year six, Nursery, pre-schools and childminders. So, all children under the age of 6 were to be expected to return to schools and settings on 1st June.
My inbox filled up with concerned parents asking if the HAD to send their child. I didn’t know but I said I would find out. My telephone did not stop ringing for a good few days, text messages, emails, zoom calls, the week passed by in a blur. No fewer than 14 different publications emerged from the DFE, the first one on the evening of Monday 11th, and the rest usually late in the evening, after a long day spent planning. Each announcement seemed to contradict some of the previous announcements, every morning it was back to the drawing board.
Were we social distancing, or weren’t we? Could we rota children, or couldn’t we? Did we need PPE. or didn’t we? On Friday 15th May just before 9pm we finally got some guidance about EYFS, after a week of trying to work out how to make this work. The guidance appeared to contradict the guidance for schools from the previous day and appeared to contradict itself. The opening paragraphs stated that providers would be opening to all children, then later on the document said only key workers and vulnerable children. No wonder we’re all a bit confused.
Meanwhile the media machine rumbled on.. teachers and heads were making a fuss about nothing, sabotaging plans, “squabbling”, how hard can it be?
Well the answer will depend. Each and every school and setting I have worked with has its own unique set of circumstances. So generic guidance will only go so far. The size of the school, the number and size of classrooms available, how they are accessed, where the toilets are in a building, how many there are, the number of sinks and access to hot water, the number of children in each year group, the number of teachers, the amount of outdoor space, the age, health, gender and ethnicity of staff all of which contribute to their “Covid age”, the catering arrangements, location, the way in which children travel to school…. So many variables are at play that it’s impossible to generalise.
I was chatting last night with a former deputy of mine, who is now the Headteacher of a school where I worked back in the last century. The school is small, although has grown from the 2 classes that were there when I started there to 4, he expressed relief at only having to accommodate a very tiny number of children returning to school. He can just about manage the 3 year groups in the buildings he has. We then considered our local infant school, which has 270 children in full-time school and an 80 place nursery. It has no fields nearby and very limited outdoor space. They have been trying to make the unworkable work by splitting 260 children in the 3 year groups expected to return, plus the key worker and vulnerable children in year 2 into “bubbles” of 15 and then finding space to teach them all in 10 classrooms and a hall. Even without the key worker children they’d need 7 more classrooms, and I would argue that the 3 year olds need to be in smaller bubbles to maintain and support hygiene. One of the schools I support is struggling to stagger arrivals and drop offs. A single form entry rural school, most children are bussed in from the surrounding areas. Many parents do not have transport of their own. So many children will be arriving on the school bus, where distancing will be impossible. Ideally the children who arrive on the bus should be in a bubble together, but there will be more than 15 and there will be children aged 4- 11.
Three schools, three very different scenarios. I could go into the details of hundreds more. When you scratch the surface, what seems straightforward is actually very complicated, and that’s before we get onto including children who require toileting support, medical assistance, or have complex SEND. We haven’t even talked about what happens when someone wants to go to the toilet, or when a 4 year old wets themselves, or loses a tooth, or falls over and needs assistance but can’t go to someone else for support, or if a teacher is ill and there aren’t enough staff to cover, or when the teacher needs the toilet. This stuff is complicated. But most children usually arrive at the same time, leave at the same time and come to school every single day.
Things get more complicated when we look at Nursery and PVI (private voluntary and independent) settings. The majority of under 4s in childcare attend PVI, and the sector is incredibly varied. From childminders operating in their own homes, to huge private day nurseries with hundreds of children on roll. Some children attend from 7am until 6pm all week, some attend for a few hours each day, some for part weeks, ratios of children to adults are different and staff work different shifts which are affected by these ratios. If you think organising bubbles in a school is a challenge, you aint seen nothin’ yet!
If you want to know more about what the sector is facing this blog by @KateBarker sums up the issues brilliantly https://k8ebarker.wordpress.com/2020/05/17/its-time-for-the-frog-chorus/
One would hope that in an effort to support schools and settings to keep safe in a global pandemic, the government would ensure that the guidance for those working with the most complex sector would be clear and extensive. On Friday 15th May, the guidance which came out late in the evening stated that further detailed guidance would follow shortly. We are still waiting.
It is not good enough. I feel for every school leader in the country at the moment. This is an incredibly stressful situation, which has been exacerbated by conflicting messages and a lack of clear guidance. We all know that sustained stress is not good for anyone’s health or wellbeing, and in the middle of a pandemic, more than ever we need to look after those who are looking after our children.
With this in mind, my next blog will focus on how we might plan to provide a post lockdown learning environment for children in EYFS and will address some of the most frequently asked questions which have arisen since the return to schools and childcare was announced.