Full school re-opening? One-metre rule change makes little difference, DfE told

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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School leaders and teachers have warned that the move to a social distancing standard of one metre will make little difference to the capacity of schools to re-open fully in September.

The Department for Education (DfE) has also been accused of “lacking a coherent strategy” for schools as we slowly emerge from the coronavirus lockdown.

On Tuesday (June 23), prime minister Boris Johnson said that from July 4, the two-metre rule would be relaxed, saying that it “effectively makes life impossible for large parts of the economy”.

Speaking in the House of Commons, he said that the move would help primary and secondary education to “recommence in September with full attendance”.

However, it has been pointed out that the wider re-opening of schools and the scientific modelling around this has never been based on social distancing, rather it has been enabled by creating small groups of pupils and staff who stay together within so-called “social bubbles”.

On Friday (June 19), education secretary Gavin Williamson revealed his intention to change the current guidance for schools to allow “social bubbles” of whole classes – up to 30 children. The current limit is 15. He has also backed Mr Johnson’s ambition to have every child back at school in September.

He said: “We've been creating bubbles of children in the classroom, creating a protective environment for those children. Currently that is at 15, what we would be looking at doing is expanding those bubbles to include the whole class."

The government’s new approach has been dubbed “one-metre-plus” – the idea being that people should keep two metres apart where they can, but where it is not possible then one-metre is acceptable “while taking mitigations to reduce the risk of transmission”.

However, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was “pure fantasy” to suggest this change suddenly made it possible for all pupils to return at the same time in September.

He said: “There has been a lot of conjecture that relaxing the two-metre social distancing rule to one-metre will allow all children to return to school in September.

“This is pure fantasy. It may be possible to accommodate more pupils in classrooms with a one-metre separation, but not all pupils. There just isn’t enough space in many classrooms to do this.

“It isn’t a magic bullet, and nor is the education secretary’s suggestion of doubling the size of social bubbles to 30, in order to facilitate a full return to schools.

“The idea of a social bubble is to have a consistent group which doesn’t mix with other pupils, whether it is 15 or 30. It is difficult to see how this could be achieved with pupils moving between different subject groups, and in playgrounds, corridors, sports fields, and transport to and from school. We need a proper strategy to bring children back into schools and colleges based in reality and on public health guidance.”

And speaking to ASCL members in his daily briefing on Wednesday (June 24), Mr Barton reiterated that the original modelling for the wider re-opening of schools had never been based on social distancing in terms of one metre or two metres – it was focused instead on social bubbles and preventing children from mixing too much.

He rejected the idea that the move from two metres to one metre is "somehow going to be a liberating step inside our schools". He said: "Frankly that two metre, one metre thing was really never part of the hierarchy of controls, so to speak. Much more important was to create those bubbles of children.

“So what we’re saying is if we’re going to have more children coming in in September … then what we’ll need to change is those expectations around those class sizes and bubbles. At the moment, it’s 15 and no more in primary. It’s 25 per cent of year 10 and 12 in secondary. Probably the direction of travel will be supporting that – a change in terms of those class sizes in primary and I think we’re likely in secondary not to be talking in terms of bubbles but talking in terms of year groups.

“The bit that will be a challenge for us as leaders is how do you keep that year group separate from other year groups. That will be about looking at arrival times, break times, lunch times. We really need to be thinking about that and having clear guidance as soon as possible."

ASCL has been in discussion with the DfE this week and Mr Barton said that the DfE is looking to produce its guidance next week.

It comes after Mr Barton, writing in SecEd this week, said that the government has “lacked a coherent strategy” on education during the pandemic.

In his article, he writes: “No government is going to get everything right in such a situation, and it won’t all go smoothly. But there are many things that the government can control. These include being precise and clear about what it is asking of schools and colleges; the rationale for its decisions; and a route map about the weeks and months ahead so that we all know where we are heading. How difficult can that be? And then there is its tendency to over-complication.”

Mr Barton puts forward a number of “simple, logical” solutions in the article. On full school re-opening, he said it is impossible to know what the situation will be in September: “Why not instead plan for two or three different workable scenarios, communicating them to the sector, and deciding which to enact as the situation becomes clear. And why has not that already been done?”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, has echoed the concerns: “Mathematics dictate that for this we need extra class spaces and extra teachers for the vast majority of schools. Government must support local authorities in making available public buildings, and encourage teachers who have left the profession, often due to excessive workload, to return.

“Employers and school leaders have been thinking through the implications of social distancing in their school for many months. One would be forgiven for thinking the government has not. For a safe return what we need to be hearing from the prime minister is not just hope, but pragmatism and a detailed, thought-through, strategic plan for schools based on the scientific evidence available.”

It comes as the latest attendance figures from the DfE show that 60 per cent of secondary school settings were open to at least one year group on June 18 – three days after schools were asked to re-open their doors to year 10 and 12 students to provide some form of face-to-face provision. However, only around 10 per cent of year 10 and 12 students attended.

Meanwhile, in primary schools, which re-opened to Reception, year 1 and year 6 pupils from June 1, an estimated 78 per cent of settings were open to at least one of these year groups on June 18, up from 67 per cent on June 11.

Attendance was highest in year 6, with around 34 per cent (up from 26 per cent on June 11). Attendance was around 26 per cent in year 1 (up from 20 per cent), and 29 per cent in Reception (up from 22 per cent).

Overall, around 92 per cent of all schools were open in some capacity on June 18 and it is estimated that 12.2 per cent of pupils (1,160,000) were in attendance, up from 9.1 per cent on June 11.

  • Barton: The way forward post-lockdown: Some simple suggestions, SecEd, June 2020: https://bit.ly/31aslLl
  • DfE: Week 25 2020: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, June 23, 2020: https://bit.ly/3hUESs8

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