On Tuesday, I attended the most brilliant session run by my professional association, School Leaders Scotland, on the theme of ‘Remote Learning – lessons learned and what’s next’.
We heard from a representative of Education Scotland who told us about reports and feedback data arising from consultations with schools, families and pupils and also from schools on all that had been achieved since January and what we might do next to refine the learning offer in the period leading up to the full re-opening of school buildings. https://education.gov.scot/improvement/supporting-remote-learning/national-overviews/national-overview-of-practice-reports/
It is maybe ironic that this event took place on the afternoon that the First Minister then announced a phased return to start on 15th March which APPEARED to suggest the need for more children and staff in buildings…. but with both her announcement and the event fresh in my mind, I penned the following.
I am not a head teacher, although I am an aspiring one. I am not writing on behalf of my employer and I do not propose or suggest that this will or should happen in the school where I work. But I do have significant experience of risk assessment, timetabling and teaching in secondary schools. I also went from the event with the SLS to speak at an incredible event organised by a consortium of schools in Aberdeen focusing on the positives to be taken from the pandemic for young people, the focus for educators in a post pandemic world and predictions of exciting opportunities that may emerge.
With my heading buzzing with inspiration and ideas, I penned these thoughts on what I think could be possible and practical for secondary schools who have worked so incredibly hard to establish an online offer that is fit for purpose for most pupils who are still living within a global pandemic that has caused significant risk to life.
Key considerations when looking at the return to school.
What is the purpose of having all pupils back in school before Easter?
Do we have a clear sense of this from the government and chief medical advisors?
It would appear from all the reports that have been produced by education Scotland that social isolation is a major concern and that getting pupils into school is very much about their well-being and a need for face-to-face in the flesh connection with other peers and staff.
However we also need to consider the fact that the core purpose of teaching and learning at this stage can successfully be addressed for the majority of secondary pupils through the continuation of what is a very well evidenced and successful virtual learning experience which we know works in terms of scheduling staff and pupils.
We know that delivery of the online offer, with most pupils and staff working from home as part of COVID-19 mitigation is fit for purpose, based on the recent surveys conducted at national level and the implementation of subsequent refinements.
Generation of evidence for SQA purposes
It seems that some politicians, staff or schools feel that there need to be full classes of pupils back in classrooms do to assessments or tasks that will generate evidence for the SQA. However the two metre distancing rule means that this is not going to be practical.
(There is an assumption here that measures have already been taken to allow small groups of pupils to attend school for the purposes of the assessment of practical subjects).
It would seem preferable that materials are given to pupils for these non-practical assessments that can be undertaken at home. Whilst this will not be under exam conditions, schools have already set a precedent for this by students completing and submitting work from home. The element of trust around this method has already been established and therefore could be easily replicated in other subjects. So, for example, if a maths paper is to be done at home, pupils and possibly a supervising parent could simply be asked to sign a declaration that the assessment was done without help or supervision. An alternative would be for us to ask the pupil to video themselves completing the work but this may not be necessary at this stage, given that there is no requirement for any evidence to be produced under exam conditions this year.
A further alternative is to suggest that the two week period before Easter is not to be used for these purposes and that if staff wish to give pupils a paper assessment in a classroom with staff supervision, they will need to leave this until after Easter when we hope that the two metre distancing rule may be relaxed. There will always be a risk that this is never actually possible, should another lockdown or stricter mitigation measures be imposed.
We need to be absolutely clear that staff indicate which pupils, if any. need to be in school for the purposes of support or assessment at this stage.
If we assume that the worst case scenario is that full classes will not be in the building at the same time for the rest of this session, we need to know if there are any senior phase pupils who would because of this have no assessment evidence that would enable them to get a national qualification.
If there are identified disadvantaged or disengaged pupils or pupils with other additional support needs who we know need to be in the building with an adult in order to produce assessment evidence, we must find a way of prioritising getting them in for those purposes over the coming weeks, possibly adapting and using Easter study support offers.
Schools could therefore continue exactly as they are now but invite each year group into school for one day a week of each of the two full weeks before Easter; for example S1 Mondays, S2 Tuesdays, S3 Wednesdays, S4 Thursdays and S5 and 6 Fridays.
(In fact this could possibly work by doing it for just one of the two full weeks leading up to Easter, if that is all that staffing allows.)
The purpose of these days would be Connect, Communicate and be Curious.
Each year group would have activities and information shared with them on their day that is pertinent to where they are in their learning journey.
There could be a session on the practicalities of the 2m rule and mask wearing for all pupils, training / refresher information in use of lateral flow testing kits for senior phase pupils and then a focus for each year group on achievements, celebration of success and looking ahead to what comes next in their learning journeys.
Pupils in relevant years could also have input around the options processes.
In addition the day should be an opportunity to look forward with hope and optimism and for staff to ensure pupils that we are confident about how we will work together to help them re-focus and continue with their learning as they gradually return to spending more time in the school building over the coming weeks and months.
Some of this could be done in a large space with two metre distancing, mask wearing and ventilation in place such as school hall and gym or even in outdoor spaces, as long as this is permitted within our risk assessment based on latest COVID-19 mitigation guidance.
At other times the school could be divided up into areas and SLT/ support staff/ other staff as available could supervise across the classes where pupils would be spread out at desks two metres apart.
The smaller breakout groupings would allow staff to connect with individual pupils in a smaller setting and take stock/be curious about how the pupils seem and what their needs might be moving forward.
This would be demanding on the staff facilitating these activities and it would need to be considered how they would be given breaks and rest time during the day.
There would also need to consider their other needs such as childcare.
There would need to be a shared understanding that the staff in school for the facilitation of these days would not be available to deliver their online teaching;, pupils, parents and carers would need to know that for the two weeks leading up to Easter the staff in school doing the Connect, Communicate and Be Curious days would not be delivering online. In fact, the communication strategy around this and the justification would be a crucial factor in its success.
One major consideration would be around ensuring that S6 pupils and any other leavers need to be given an opportunity to come together and process the fact that their last year in school has been so different to what they had hoped for. It will be an opportunity to talk to them about and alleviate their fears and anxieties regarding the future but also for them to plan some sort of marking of leaving school.
This potential solution would ensure that the human rights of adults working in schools to remain healthy and safe can be balanced with articles 28 and 29 (right to and goal of education), 15 (freedom of association) and 24 (health) of the UNCRC.
On the 15th March, there will still be a very uneven playing field for staff returning to secondary schools; some may have had one vaccine dose, some two and some none.
Where our risk assessments, as far I as understand, still have the risks related to COVID-19 for those working in secondary schools at red level (as advised by the Health and Safety Executive) unless mitigation measures can be very strictly enforced, we surely can’t risk doing anything else than proceed with caution?
But what do I know?