One month on: Schools' experiences of wider re-opening

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

No NPQH ever prepared headteachers for the decision-making and timetabling that they have had to put into operation over the past few weeks. One month on since wider re-opening of primary schools, headteachers speak to Suzanne O’Connell about their experiences and lessons learned so far

Headteachers are used to making decisions. However, making arrangements for the return to school following the coronavirus lockdown has presented a unique challenge. What advice there has been has felt like quicksilver and with even the scientists appearing to disagree it has been a case of schools doing it for themselves.

Since June 1, we have begun the process of re-opening our schools to more pupils. We asked a sample of primary school headteachers about their experiences of – and feelings towards – bringing more children back into school.

A hesitant return

Many schools did not start back on June 1. A lack of time for preparation led many to stagger their return allowing for some days with staff only.

Roddy Fairclough’s school, Newbury Park Primary in Redbridge, took an extra week to ensure that the induction of staff and risk assessment was thorough.

In Lancashire, the return was delayed until June 22 because of the local R rate. Jeff Brown, headteacher of St Anne’s RC Primary School in Blackburn, said: “This was helpful to us as it gave us enough time to prepare the site and the staff.”

At Longwick CE Combined School in Buckinghamshire, Joel Feltwell found herself thrown into the deep end as an acting headteacher. Longwick did not stagger the return of the children, but did delay opening by two days in order for staff to prepare.

Meanwhile, headteacher Emma Meadus at Coppice Valley Primary School in Harrogate admitted to some anxieties: “On the first day ‘back’ in our social bubbles, the staff and myself were nervous. It was like the first day back in September when all teachers feel like they’ve forgotten how to teach, but even more nerve-wracking because we were putting the new protective measures in place.”

The barriers to wider re-opening

Perhaps the biggest difficulty experienced was the logistics of catering for social bubbles in school buildings that were not designed to keep groups isolated. At St Anne’s, this meant reducing the bubble size to 12 children, down from the 15 maximum recommended in the government guidance.

“Our Nursery and Reception staff have had to adapt their teaching to incorporate play-based learning at desks,” Mr Brown explained.

It was a similar situation for Jonathan Brookes, Trust Partner for schools in the Learners’ Trust: “We took the decision early on to work in bubbles of less than 15 children, simply to enable the risk mitigation strategies to be enacted more effectively.”

Leadership teams have been faced with designing a range of timetables, rotas and methods of moving round school buildings.

“A completely new structure to the day has had to be implemented,” explained Mr Fairclough. “All classrooms have had to be rearranged with furniture and resources removed. At times, it has been logistically difficult with constantly updating staff rotas.”

A major issue for Mr Brookes was the stress and personal circumstances of the staff themselves. “Given the high levels of anxiety in society generally, it was imperative that we did not apply undue pressure on staff to return to work too early if, in their view, their health or personal circumstances were being put at too great a risk.”

There were some unforeseen barriers too. Ms Meadus and her team discovered that some children had outgrown the uniform: “This was worrying some families enough to think they wouldn’t come back until September. So, we have said no uniform necessary for any children, just casual clothes and trainers.”

The parents’ response

What was evident from the media, forums and discussion groups was that parents were themselves not convinced that schools should be returning on June 1.

“Many were reluctant to send their children back,” points out Mr Fairclough. “We had planned initially for 35 per cent of pupils from year 6, year 1 and Reception to return, but this may rise slowly as parents gain confidence.”

Parents are beginning to feel a little more reassured as time goes on: “There were even differences of opinion within families about whether the scientific evidence indicated it was safe for children to return,” Mr Brookes explained. “Over time we’ve seen a slight increase in numbers and several of our settings are reaching capacity quite quickly.”

Ms Meadus and her staff wanted it to be clear to parents exactly what measures they were taking: “We made a guidebook of our protective measures so parents and pupils knew exactly what to expect.

“We also made videos of each classroom, entry/exit gates, routes to classes and pick up areas. Everyone needed to understand that we would not be maintaining two-metre social distancing between children in school.”

Overall, parents have appreciated the difficult decisions that schools have had to make and in the majority of circumstances have been supportive. “Largely, there has been a lot of gratitude towards the schools and the staff,” Mr Brookes added.

The children’s response

It wasn’t just the fact that school would look and feel different. These children had spent weeks in relative isolation at home. How would they react to returning to the school environment and what experiences had they had in the meantime?

Mr Brookes said: “The children I’ve seen have enjoyed the small group engagement with an adult and the opportunity to interact again.”

At Coppice Valley, they have noticed that concentration spans have decreased, particularly after lunchtime. But overall, they have been surprised at how well the children have coped.

Mr Brown has noted a similar level of resilience at St Anne’s: “The returning children seem to have adapted really well to being back at school, and with their peers.”

Planning for September

For September, Mr Fairclough feels that the main challenges will be restoring confidence, identifying wellbeing issues and helping pupils catch up as much as is possible.

“Schools need to fully open, that is clear,” he said. “Damage to learning has already been done in the short term but there is time to catch up next year with well-planned and effective systems and learning programmes. Longer closures are going to make things extremely difficult, particularly for those preparing for exams.”

A return to attendance expectations could be difficult to negotiate, however. “At the moment, we have not put pressure on parents to send their children back in to school,” Ms Feltwell told us. “However, what will we do in September and onwards with those parents who are still anxious about school safety? Some of these are genuine concerns but I worry that some others are making the most of this relaxed approach.”

Mr Brown added: “’It will be hard to gauge the full impact of the lockdown on families until we are in a position to open school up to all of our learners. We have sent out questionnaires with our end of year reports so that we can start to prepare for the support that will need to be provided.”

Ms Meadus and her staff at Coppice Valley have looked at the curriculum and the objectives that have not been taught and are prioritising them in order of which are key to successful learning: “Our staff will begin any new teaching unit with quizzes from the previous year group’s objectives to find out where the gaps are.”

The lessons learnt

Schools have struggled to cope with changing advice and information from the government. As Mr Fairclough points out: “It has been difficult at times to assimilate the abundance of information coming from the Department for Education through the local authority to schools. This has added to the levels of anxiety from staff and parents and has had to be managed on top of trying to get things right.”

Announcements made without proper thought have caused unnecessary stress among teaching staff too, and Mr Brown believes that a more localised approach should have been taken based on the local R rates – rather than school opening being led from London.

“I’m not sure that year 6 returning first was the best decision,” added Ms Feltwell. “We would have preferred to have welcomed back year 5 first as the year group facing public examinations next year.”

Mr Brookes would also have liked more consultation: “It would have been helpful for the profession to have been engaged earlier in the re-opening conversations, for instance in determining the potential year groups for re-entry and what the planning for that could look like.”

A positive outlook

Ms Meadus reflects: “As a headteacher, I saw it as my duty to do as the DfE and government asked of me and re-open my school, as safely as I possibly could.”

She is hopeful that they may be able to bring back all the children even for a short space of time before the summer holidays.

At Longwick, the year 5s have already been welcomed back.

It was clear that every school we talked to was determined to make it work as best they could.

Mr Brookes concluded: “So many staff I know have done so much for their communities. They’ve gone the ‘extra mile’ during this tricky time, often putting their own circumstances and families behind the needs of others.”

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

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