Social bubbles and rota systems crucial to wider re-opening of schools

Rota systems and social bubbles are key to the wider re-opening of primary schools, school leaders have told Headteacher Update.

The government went ahead this week with its further re-opening of schools, with many primary schools opening their doors on Monday (June 1) to pupils from Reception, year 1 and year 6.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) estimates that pupil attendance was anywhere from 40 to 70 per cent of eligible children.

Not all schools re-opened, with some choosing to wait until next week or re-opening to staff only for safety training and preparation work.

Speaking to Headteacher Update this week, school leaders said that social bubble systems had been at the heart of their approach. Warnings have also been raised that rota systems will be essential if schools are to open to more pupils.

Many primary schools’ plans were thrown into doubt when Department for Education (DfE) guidance published on May 14 stated that “schools should not plan on the basis of a rota system, either daily or weekly”.

However, unions have said they would support members who choose to use rotas with the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) advising its members to use rotas if it is “unavoidable”.

A poll published on Saturday (May 30) by the NAHT and involving responses from 2,000 school leaders found that only 12 per cent said they would open to all eligible year groups from June 1 while 78 per cent would be increasing the number of pupils attending but in flexible way, such as with a smaller number of year groups or by using rotas.

A further 10 per cent said they will not be in a position to increase the number of pupils attending school at all, either from June 1 nor from June 8.

Meanwhile, a survey of more than 23,000 teachers covering 10,953 primary schools by the National Education Union (NEU) found that 44 per cent of schools did not re-open for Reception, year 1 and 6 pupils, while 35 per cent did. A further 21 per cent did re-open more widely, but not for all eligible pupils.

Take-up varied hugely between schools, with the majority reporting that 25 to 50 per cent of eligible pupils attended. The survey also showed regional variations linked to the level of coronavirus in each region. For example, schools in the North West and North East, where virus levels are higher, were least likely to have opened to all eligible groups.

NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said: “It was always reckless of Boris Johnson to set an arbitrary date and expect schools to fall in line. Heads and their staff know far more about the individual challenges then Whitehall ever will. As the regional variations according to coronavirus levels show, schools are listening to the science rather than politicians.”

Anthony David, executive headteacher, Monken Hadley and St Paul’s Primary Schools in north London, opened for part of year 1 on Monday. He told Headteacher Update that it has been “very quiet”, with half of the year group attending.

He said: “With very limited children we were able to keep groups isolated.” However, he added: “It has highlighted the challenge of opening to more groups. Without a rota system, there would not be enough toilets to meet the needs of Reception, year 1, year 6, and key worker pupils.”

West Heslerton CE Primary School in Yorkshire saw around 50 per cent attendance across all eligible year groups with a system of social bubbles being used and a focus on outdoor activities.

Headteacher Rachel Wells said: “As more children ask to come back to school, we may need to adapt our practice. Bubbles have been maintained but should one of these bubbles be affected by illness of any kind, provision may be closed temporarily for this age group as all staff are being used to maintain the small groups.”

Dacre Braithwaite CE Primary School in Harrogate, meanwhile, is opening to all eligible children from Monday (June 8). Headteacher Jo Dobbs said: “I've allowed a week for the staff to get the school (and themselves) ready for how the new normal will work. We have about 50 per cent of children coming of the ones who are eligible. As we are so small, it's worked really well to have a long staff meeting (on Monday) morning just to go through the checklists and risk assessments and to allow everyone to have a view. This was much appreciated by the staff.”

On Monday, ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton said: “Our early impression is that the picture on the wider opening of primary schools is very mixed, according to a range of factors, such as different approaches by local authorities, constraints on the space available in schools to accommodate eligible pupils while implementing the safety protocols, and the availability of staff.

“This means some schools will not open this week, and there will be schools which are simply unable to bring in all the eligible year groups.

“Many schools which are opening this week are bringing in staff first in order to carry out training and preparation, and then phasing in eligible year groups. Caution is the watchword, and everybody is approaching this task with the safety of pupils and staff as their absolute priority.”

Later that day in a video update to members, Mr Barton emphasised the importance of social bubbles rather than social distancing within the primary school: “We understand that social distancing within a primary school means something different from social distancing beyond the school. So that obsession with the two-metre rule outside the school is not an obsession within the school.

“The whole modelling was done making an assumption that children will not be able to socially distance. So within a school it’s about those bubbles of children being kept together, not mixing with other children, not being in the community, staying with one member of staff.”

It came after a study of more than 1,200 primary and secondary school leaders outlined the main challenges facing schools during wider re-opening.

Top of the list of concerns were managing pupil transport/travel (69 per cent), managing pupil movement around school (66 per cent) and organising school space to enable social distancing (65 per cent).

However, most of the leaders said they felt at least somewhat prepared for staffing the school site (72 per cent), staffing lessons (67 per cent), and maintaining hygiene (66 per cent).

The study, which was published by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) on Monday (June 1) also found that 66 per cent of the primary leaders were worried about their preparedness for managing a combination of face-to-face and online lessons if not all pupils are in school at once.

Primary schools in the survey said that they would be making use of rotas, with different year groups or classes attending on different days (65 per cent), while the use of staggered lunch and break times is also on the cards (78 per cent).

Primary schools also felt it feasible to stagger the start and end of the school day (78 per cent).

The study added: “Most senior leaders say that enabling staff to self-isolate (97 per cent), frequent cleaning (96 per cent) and regular handwashing/sanitising (94 per cent) are very necessary/essential for safety when opening their schools more fully. Over half (56 per cent) consider it very necessary/essential to have access to PPE.”

Overall, primary leaders are less positive than their secondary colleagues about opening their schools more fully, with only 18 per cent saying this is “very/entirely feasible” (compared to 37 per cent of primary colleagues). Primary leaders in the study predicted that around half of parents will keep their children at home.

When it came to staffing levels, the schools in the survey said that in May they had seen an available staffing capacity of about 75 per cent of full-time colleagues, although about a third of these are working from home.

Commenting on the NFER’s findings, its CEO Carole Willis said: “Government guidance needs to be tailored and responsive, allowing flexibility for school leaders to use their professional judgement. This will be necessary to manage the differing and changeable levels of staffing, parental choices and practical accommodation issues that each school is likely to experience.

“The findings also reinforce concerns about children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Schools with a high proportion of free school meal children were the most affected before lockdown and expect fewer children to return, adding to concerns about their loss of learning. There needs to be very clear messages and reassurance for parents, as well as a continued focus on the quality of remote learning.”

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