Primary schools urged to use rotas if necessary from June 1 despite DfE reluctance

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

There is pressure on the government to reconsider its position against the use of rotas when bringing back more primary school pupils from June 1 – with leadership unions backing schools that choose to do so anyway.

The rhetoric around June 1 has been toned down in recent days, with prime minister Boris Johnson on Sunday (May 24) admitting that some schools may not be able to re-open immediately. The language has also shifted from talk of “on” June 1 to “from” June 1.

However, on Sunday (May 24), Mr Johnson said that the plans to re-open primary schools for Reception, year 1 and year 6 “remain on track” – they can only go ahead if the government’s five tests are met by May 28, including decreasing rates of infection and deaths from Covid-19.

One key sticking point for schools has been the seeming ban on the use of rotas to split pupils into groups to enable social distancing and safety for pupils, staff and parents.

Many primary schools’ plans were thrown into doubt when Department for Education (DfE) guidance published on May 14 – four days after the prime minister unveiled his June 1 plan – stating that “schools should not plan on the basis of a rota system, either daily or weekly”.

However, in parallel guidance for secondary schools, published on Monday (May 25), secondary schools are told that rotas are acceptable for year 10 and 12 provision from June 15, with the exception of split-day rotas.

It states: “Where rotas are used, secondary schools should avoid split-day rotas within the same day and ensure that only a quarter of children are ever in the school on any one day (e.g. morning and afternoon rotas should not be applied).”

However, in that same document, it adds a reminder for primary schools: “We are asking primary schools not to plan on the basis of rotas at this stage as they do not provide the consistency of education and care required for the youngest children, who also require more support with remote education.”

The ban seems all the more odd given that in the modelling of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), which was published on Friday (May 22), the scenarios which appear to have the lowest likely impact on the R number – the infection rate – were variations on weekly or fortnightly rotas.

Education unions are now pushing ministers for clarification on this point and have said they would support schools that use rotas anyway, with headteachers urged to avoid daily rotas in favour of weekly or fortnightly rotas in a bid to avoid pupils and families mixing during changeovers.

Speaking on Friday (May 22), ahead of the publication of the SAGE advice, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL): “There have been concerns about how on earth can I bring in my Reception, my year 1, my year 6s if I cannot have some kind of rota.

“There is an acceptance from the DfE that rotas are problematic for vulnerable children – they should be in all the time. But then there has been a shift in recognition that when we’re talking about rotas, if you’re saying some children will be coming in in one week and some children will be coming in in another week, that doesn’t increase the rate of infection in the way that it would do if you had children in in the morning and children in in the afternoon.”

And speaking to Headteacher Update on Monday, Mr Barton added: “We think that primary schools should be allowed to use rotas as this would greatly help meet the expectation of bringing in eligible age groups while at the same time managing safety procedures.

“In reality, we expect many will do so, despite the government guidance to the contrary. It is clear from the guidance allowing the use of rotas in secondary schools that they were not ruled out in primary schools on public health grounds, and we think the government needs to show a similar degree of flexibility to primary schools.”

The National Association of Head Teachers has also advised members to use rotas if it is “unavoidable”.

A statement said: “NAHT’s understanding is that, at this point in time, the DfE would prefer schools to prioritise bringing back individual year groups on a consistent basis rather than alternating year groups on a rota basis. We understand this is because it will reduce the number of contacts and help those parents return to work, whereas alternating days or weeks is less likely to achieve this.

“However, if the individual circumstances of a school mean the use of rotas even within a year group is unavoidable, we recommend schools try to avoid split day rotas as this is likely to increase the number of parents, staff and pupils coming into contact with each other on a daily basis and reduce opportunity for cleaning. A week-on, week-off approach is likely to be more manageable.”

The SAGE advice modelled seven scenarios, ranging from bringing back all primary, all secondary, having rotas of attendance, or bringing back transition years only.

The paper states: “Scenario 7 (alternating one/two weeks on, one/two weeks off) may be a good way to stop extensive transmission chains in schools. When this effect in schools is embedded into the wider community, the impact is less strong, but still has some value in reducing overall R.

“Scenario 7 is likely to be the most effective strategy to make school attendance normative. If steps are taken to synchronise attendance for families with multiple children, this may be the most effective at enabling parents to return to work.

“Scenario 7b, where children alternate in and out of school on a weekly basis, was perceived to be potentially preferable – both developmentally and practically – for young children and working parents.”

Mr Barton added: “We welcome the prime minister’s recognition that it will not be possible for all primary schools to open to more pupils from June 1. The reality is that many schools will need to phase back eligible pupils over a period of time, and there will be a great deal of variability across the country according to context.”

Elsewhere, ASCL also believes that the previous government proposal that “all” primary pupils would have four weeks in school before the summer break has been “quietly disappeared”.

  • DfE: Preparing for the wider opening of schools from 1 June. Primary guidance (May 14, 2020); secondary guidance (May 25, 2020): https://bit.ly/2TBSPAW
  • SAGE: Modelling and behavioural science responses to scenarios for relaxing school closures, meeting on April 30, 2020 (published May 2020): https://bit.ly/3d275dE


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