Coronavirus: 'On the edge of safety' – How schools have handled the most difficult of weeks

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:

The pressure for a blanket closure of UK schools has been building for days and the decision to shut down finally came yesterday. Dorothy Lepkowska looks at how schools and others have been reacting throughout a very difficult week in education

The closure of thousands of schools because of the coronavirus outbreak is an unprecedented move in modern times – and one that takes both the government and the education system into uncharted waters.

In another first, whole cohorts of children and young people will not be sitting SATs, GCSEs or A levels this summer. The Department for Education (DfE) is to work with the exams regulator Ofqual and awarding bodies “to ensure children get the qualifications that they need”.

The pressure for the closure of UK schools has been building for days and yesterday (Wednesday, March 18) saw the UK government and the devolved administrations make the decision to shut down.

Thus far, the government had resisted the move, but during this week it became clear that many schools were struggling to stay open due to staff illness and self-isolation.

There was huge concern among many parents as well, and social media was filled with concerns about children being abandoned to a “petri dish experiment”.

In truth, the government probably had little choice. As the week wore on, schools were seeing dwindling staff and pupil numbers every day.

Whatever the “science” was about controlling the pandemic by keeping schools functioning, by yesterday some were reporting being only 50 per cent full as families either self-isolated or chose to keep their children away.

Many headteachers were publicly voicing their doubts about whether their schools would even make it to the end of the week. Some had already taken the matter into their own hands, often reluctantly and with mixed emotions.

Mike Fairclough, head of West Rise Junior School in East Sussex, wrote on Tuesday that he was authorising the absences of children whose parents wanted to keep them at home.

“I feel like this is my moral duty,” he said. “We’ve been told categorically that social distancing is essential. Schools are basically just mass gatherings, aren’t they? It doesn’t make sense to have lots of children in school together, touching each other all the time.”

Vic Goddard, principal of Passmores Academy in Essex, published a letter he had sent home to parents yesterday informing them that the school would be closed from Friday. He said: “This has not been an easy decision, but it is the correct course of action considering all the factors.”

Some had taken the decision even earlier. Neill Oldham, headteacher of Highfurlong School in Blackpool, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday: “Tonight I'm a head with a closed school. Despite every effort to stretch staffing resources to meet needs in school I could see clearly that it was unreasonable and on the edge of safety.

“I took a step back, a deep breath and made the hardest decision to close. Closing any school is a big decision. Knowing that our school is a lifeline for families and in some cases the only opportunity for our pupils to see their friends and socialise as well as learn makes that decision even harder.”

His tweets received with support from headteacher colleagues around the country.

Undoubtedly, the government also bowed to some extent to pressure from the education unions, whose warnings about the situation evolving in many schools were increasingly anguished.

The National Education Union has already threatened to officially advise its members who are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus infection COVID-19 to stop attending schools.

The NASUWT, meanwhile, had warned the government about a “rising sense of panic” and the “intolerable pressure” facing schools and teachers.

On social media, teachers working in over-sized classes were noting the contradictions in the government’s statements demanding social isolation and asking people to steer clear of pubs and restaurants, while children in their hundreds sat in school dining halls “licking their fingers and picking their noses”.

Among those deciding to close ahead of the official shut-down were specialist schools, whose heads had complained about a lack of guidance over how to keep safe some of the most vulnerable children and young people.

The Medicine in Specialist Schools steering group had written to the government asking how they should protect youngsters with complex health and medical needs and suggested closing their schools. A number were already understood to have made the decision to close by Friday, regardless of any further guidance from the DfE.

The scrapping of this year’s examinations has also created confusion, leaving thousands of students and parents in the dark about what this means and what will happen next.

It remained unclear last night what exactly was meant by the government’s pledge to ensure that “students gain the qualifications they need”, or indeed the prime minister’s assertion that the government would “make sure GCSE/A level students’ progress is not impeded”. Quick and decisive action will be needed on this front.

Some believe the government’s plan is to use students’ predicted grades, but many students voiced their concerns at this idea on social media.

Others called on the government to draw up and announce a contingency plan as soon as possible in order to allay young people’s fears about their college and university places, and employment prospects.

And the possibility of using predicted grades or teacher assessment has raised eyebrows among teaching unions. As Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “We note that, at this time of emergency, the government has decided that teacher assessment is indeed a good method of giving reliable information about young people’s progress and achievements. We will return to that when this crisis is over.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education writer.

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