Squaring The Circle – A New Normal For Schools?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 5 June 2020
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Coronavirus; Schools

On BBC N Ireland Newsline on Tuesday May 26th, Education Correspondent Robbie Meredith reported  on Methodist College Principal Scott Naismith’s e mail to parents which articulated perfectly what many in the school leader community have been thinking, namely that current social distance protocols will make it virtually impossible to reopen our larger schools in a meaningful way in September. He pointed out that in average classrooms only half a dozen pupils and a teacher can be accommodated under the current guidelines. He pointed out that if Northern Ireland were to move from the 2 metre rule to a 1 metre social distance, as suggested by The World health Organisation, then perhaps half of a school’s pupils could attend at a time. The Northern Ireland Children’s Commissioner has also mentioned the need to consider the WHO social distance protocol in the interest of getting schools restarted.

Mr Naismith wrote that even if that change took place, class sizes would be reduced, and pupils would not be able to attend every day. He also indicated that pupils in years eight to ten would temporarily take fewer subjects, there would be no games periods and that sporting activities, clubs and societies would be suspended, as would trips and visits. Mr Naismith also signalled the future issues regarding formal GCSE, AS and A-level exams next year suggesting that they would have to "take account of the disruption caused by lockdown and the phased return to normality".

So, what will our schools look like after lockdown?

Schools in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the corona virus outbreak was first reported, have started to reopen, with senior students only allowed to attend. They have restricted the number of pupils allowed into classrooms and they are required to practise social distancing.

Students and staff are tested at school gates with thermal scanners as is happening in some airports and students wear face masks with their desks kept a safe distance apart from each other.

Other obvious measures in larger schools would include one way corridor traffic systems as practised in big stores like B & Q, keeping pupils mainly in the same room, rather than moving between rooms for successive classes and staggered breaks and lunches to avoid large numbers of pupils meeting. Alongside this would be ramped up cleaning and hygiene regimes.

The Irish News Education Correspondent Simon Doyle comparing the plans to reopen schools across the four UK jurisdictions cites the Northern Ireland position as;

“All children are intended to restart classes on a phased basis, involving a mixture of physical attendance and remote learning in September, Covid 19 infection rates permitting. Pupils preparing for exams could begin in the third week of August”.

Scotland plans to come back a month sooner with children too attending on a part-time basis. They add to idea of commissioning additional large spaces like community and leisure centres to accommodate socially distanced learning situations. Again a “blended learning approach” is suggested of part-time in-school and part-time at home learning.

Wales has gone a different route deciding to reopen all schools on June 29th and extend the summer term to July 27th, with a third of pupils in school at any one time. The idea being to give pupils “a taste of school life” before their more normal return in September.  England of course have already pushed ahead with plans for early years classes and pre-exam years to return at the beginning of June and all primary classes in July despite strident opposition from trade unions and negative public reaction. Attendance figures have been very variable.

Reaction locally is no different to that in other areas with both parents and school leaders continuing to express concern at the out-working of social distancing on school buses and the practical difficulties of a “blended learning” approach including part-time attendance in school. As in Scotland, suggestions are coming in regarding the use of larger spaces like leisure centres. We will not be clear how this will look until the Department of Education publishes a planned restart programme in the coming months.

Pressure however is growing to reopen schools for both economic and educational reasons. Sian Griffiths the Education Editor of The Sunday Times quotes Former Chief Inspector of Schools Sir Michael Wilshaw who is worried about the delay to restarting normal education. He focuses on the deepening disadvantage for children attending state primaries. He feels they will fall even further behind more those from affluent backgrounds attending independent prep schools. All 640 schools belonging to the Independent Association of Prep Schools in England have declared their intention to reopen for years 1 and 6 on June 1st.

Sir Michael Wilshaw points to Britain’s already big attainment gap between rich and poor children compared to other developed countries. He feels that the good progress made over the last ten years in closing this gap could be lost.

It is interesting to look at how schools in other countries have organised themselves. In Germany in Cologne International School, individual classroom seating plans were put in place - so that if someone is found with the virus, the contact tracers will know exactly who was sitting nearest. Assembly/Exam halls are deemed as one of the few locations that lend themselves to social distancing. There is a one-way system in the corridors to minimise contact, break times are staggered, there is a strict cleaning regime and face masks are worn in common areas. The school days are shorter and mixed with online lessons. Vulnerable staff and pupils stay at home because of their health issues or because of concerns about someone in their family.

In Denmark which is held up as an exemplar of good practice, primary schools have been back at school for a month. It is assumed that social distancing will be unreliable with young children, so instead children stay in small groups all day, in "protective bubbles". These micro-groups of pupils arrive at a separate time, eat their lunch separately, stay in their own zones in the playground and are taught by one teacher. No face masks are used by pupils or teachers.

A key element to the success of this approach will be the degree to which online learning from home can be effective for all pupils. Some schools are already very proficient in this field, but it is by no means true for all schools and there will be a wide variation of expertise among the teaching workforce in terms of good online learning practice. Commentators are already asking for the Department of Education to take a lead in providing the necessary standardisation measures to ensure equitable experience for all. For children without good access to computers and internet at home clearly hardware and internet access will have to be organised.

International schools in The Middle East have been at the forefront of this new online learning necessity during the pandemic. They have additional difficulties to cope with, not least that many pupils do not speak English as a first language.

Reports from teachers working there have indicated that assessments can be a problem. The only way they could produce reliable assessment outcomes was by using teacher predictions based on existing data of academic progress throughout the year.  If children were given assessments to complete at home there were concerns that some might have received help and support, which would lead to inaccurate outcomes.

E-learning is also having a negative impact on the learner's communication skills. Though many pupils have excellent academic knowledge, they may not possess the needed skills to deliver their acquired knowledge to others in a group setting. Conference type classes do not seem to compensate for the loss of face to face social exchange – and this is a major element of a child’s classroom experience.

It is clear that getting online learning right is the major challenge in restarting our education system and teacher training and best practice sharing need to begin immediately to be ready for September.


This article is correct at 05/06/2020

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

The main content of this article was provided by Frank Cassidy. Email frankcassidy63@outlook.com

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