Anxious headteachers feeling the burden of responsibility as they plan for June 1

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

“Deeply anxious”, “extremely concerned”, “incredibly stressed” – primary school leaders have told Headteacher Update this week of the enormous pressure they face as they plan for a possible June 1 re-opening.

The government is set to go ahead with plans to re-open primary schools for Reception, year 1 and year 6 children should the coronavirus infection rate – the R number – remain below 1 and the number of infections continue to fall.

It is due to make a final decision at the end of May – most likely on May 28 – but has asked schools to make plans now so that they are ready to open on June 1.

This is despite the fact that the Department for Education (DfE) is still in talks with teaching and leadership unions in a bid to convince them that it is safe to send some pupils back into the classroom.

A meeting took place between the government’s scientific advisors and the education unions on Friday (May 15) and the DfE has also published a six-page summary of the scientific evidence on which it has based its decision to re-open.

Headteachers have told Headteacher Update that they feel torn between playing their part in the country’s Covid-19 response and protecting the health and wellbeing of their pupils and staff. Many are not convinced by the government’s reassurances.

Jo Dobbs, headteacher of Dacre Braithwaite CE Primary School in Harrogate said she was “deeply anxious”. She told us: “Both my staff, governors and I have deep concerns over the handling of this announcement; by the conflicting scientific advice and contradictions in the government guidance and by the pressure being exerted by government to open without meeting the five key questions.”

Meanwhile, in Somerset, Julie Norman, executive headteacher of the Crowcombe and Stogumber CE Federation, said she was keen to re-open but is concerned about the impact on pupils.

She explained: “I feel a huge sense of responsibility as well as an enormous sense of guilt if I cannot offer what the government is promising parents. I want some normality given to the children, some routine at least, but I’m concerned that bringing children in to an environment where there is constant handwashing, separation from friends, two-metre distancing and the constant fear of ‘passing the germ’ to others will instil OCD behaviours in children. I feel under those measures, they are better off at home learning online.

“We cannot ensure the school is safe for children or whether children will bring home the virus. On that basis, it is not safe.”

For Rachel Jones, headteacher at Kingsley St Johns Primary School in Cheshire, the scientific evidence being made available to schools does not match the huge responsibility headteachers face.

In an article for Headteacher Update this week detailing her planning and thoughts ahead of June 1, Ms Jones writes: “There is a tremendous weight of expectation and responsibility on the shoulders of headteachers and governing bodies – and we have not even seen all the evidence on which the decision to re-open has been taken. These responsibilities and considerations make headship a very unenviable job at this moment in time.”

Phil Hallman, headteacher at St Martin’s Catholic Primary School in Halton said he was “extremely concerned and incredibly stressed”. He added: “This should be a regional strategy based on the data locally – it cannot be a blanket countrywide approach.”

Friday’s meeting with the government’s scientific advisors did provide some further detail, but the consensus across the unions remains that more information is needed to reassure staff.

Speaking after the meeting, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the meeting was “productive”. He added: “There are a number of areas we still need to investigate further, but on the whole, we are moving towards a deeper understanding of the science.”

And his counterpart at the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton, said that while more detail had been forthcoming, the decision to open remains “a judgement call like no other”.

Writing in Headteacher Update, he said: “If we are looking for absolute certainty, an evidence base that is immutable and set in stone, protective measures that cover every possible risk and eventuality that could ever arise, then we will, frankly, not be re-opening schools for a very long time, and probably not until a vaccine is available. And, of course, the educational costs of doing this would be immense and extremely damaging. So that is the dilemma, and this is basically a judgement call like no other.”

The teaching unions were less impressed with the scientific advice offered at Friday’s meeting. After the meeting, the National Education Union wrote to the government seeking answers to a number of questions.

Joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said: “Very many questions that we asked were not addressed in the time available. We were told that we are in the foothills of knowledge and there is still a lot of uncertainty about the science. For example, we were told children’s likelihood to transmit Covid-19 is not more than adults but only that it may be less than adults.”

Mr Courtney said that among questions they still want answers to are:

  • How they will know the effect on the R rate of the current lifting of lockdown before further steps are taken?
  • What are the conditions that need to have been achieved before any wider opening of schools, e.g. is there a particular daily case count that they are hoping for?
  • Why our country seems alone in saying that social distancing is not necessary in schools?

He added: “We were not presented with any scientific evidence to justify the decision not to include social distancing in the guidance to English schools, whereas it is an important part of the guidance in other countries – in fact we were told that they have evidence that children have passed the disease to adults.”

And the NASUWT said that the meeting “raised more questions than answers” and provided “no evidence”. A survey of NASUWT members over the weekend garnered around 30,000 responses, with 93 per cent stating that the government’s plans were “confusing” and 92 per cent saying they were not convinced by reassurances over safety; 91 per cent are not confident about the proposed measures to protect their health or the health of children.

General secretary Dr Patrick Roach said: “No information was provided (at the meeting) to change the widely held view that the evidence base for opening schools from June 1 is weak. No confirmation was provided that teachers are at low risk of catching the virus following the wider opening of schools. No clear information was provided on what modelling has been undertaken in relation to potential transmission rates. Nothing in the meeting provided reassurance for the deeply worried and anxious school workforce.

“The NASUWT remains clear that no school should re-open until it can demonstrate that it is safe to do so.”

Following the meeting, the DfE published a six-page overview of the scientific information, although the document can hardly be described as detailed or definitive.

It states: “The exact rates of infectivity and transmission of children is not fully known yet; this is a novel virus and the scientific understanding is developing all the time.” It says that the current understanding is that:

  • There is a high degree of confidence that the severity of disease in children is lower than in adults.
  • There is a moderate to high degree of confidence that the susceptibility to clinical disease of younger children (up to age 11 to 13) is lower than for adults. For older children, there is not enough evidence yet to determine whether susceptibility to disease is different to adults.
  • The susceptibility to infection of younger children (up to age 11 to 13) might be lower than for adults, but the degree of confidence in this is low. For older children, there is not enough evidence yet to determine whether susceptibility to infection is different to adults.
  • There is no evidence to suggest that children transmit the virus any more than adults. Some studies suggest younger children may transmit less, but this evidence is mixed and provides a low degree of confidence at best.

Many headteachers who we have spoken to this week are putting in place plans to re-open on June 1 but agree with the unions that the evidence base seems weak.

Anthony David, executive headteacher, Monken Hadley and St Paul’s Primary Schools in north London, is “anxious”. He has been particularly stung by the vocal criticism of schools for challenging the scientific evidence being used to justify the decision to re-open.

He explained: “It is disappointing that the government has failed to provide the scientific evidence that backs up their plans, which while headline-grabbing, are actually vague. Schools have remained open during this crisis. It is therefore disappointing that a senior cabinet minister chooses to question school's moral duty when the government are not prepared to support them.”

Sabah Malik, a deputy headteacher in west London, said she wasapprehensive about wider school opening” and that 70 per cent of her school’s parents will not be sending their children in on June 1.

She added: “Having read through the DfE guidance and local authority summaries there is a glaring lack of clarity and a sense that we must ‘fudge’ our way through. Staff also echo the sentiment with many believing they are the sacrificial lambs to the slaughter in the event that a relaxing of lockdown leads to a second peak.”

Jeremy Bingham, a headteacher in Nottinghamshire, said he was “very concerned”, particularly because safety measures are difficult to implement in his school’s Victorian buildings.

He said: “I think it's appalling we are asked to provide for Reception and year 1. Let's try year 6 – they listen and will socially distance if they can. Then add another age group, say year 5 in two weeks. At the moment, the government is treating teachers and school staff as guinea pigs. Children may get Covid-19 mildly, but we don't.”

Another London headteacher, speaking anonymously, said they were struggling because of staffing issues and space: “I am concerned that it will not be the same as the children expect. Some of them won't be taught by their usual teacher or be able to mix with some of their friends. I'm also concerned about safety. I am not sure how we're going to find the classrooms and teachers as other age groups are admitted.

“There are lots of concerns. We were told we would have three weeks to plan but this, if you discount half-term, has become one week. I'm concerned too about the criticism that teachers have received because of their anxiety that this may be too early to re-open.”

  • DfE: Overview of scientific information on coronavirus (COVID-19), May 15, 2002: https://bit.ly/2X9QMVA
  • DfE: Actions for educational and childcare settings to prepare for wider opening from June 1, May 11, 2020: https://bit.ly/2WoJjTa
  • DfE: Coronavirus (COVID-19): implementing protective measures in education and childcare settings, May 11, 2020: https://bit.ly/2yN0pkQ


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