Muddled announcements cause more confusion for schools
Criticism has been levelled at the government from across the education sector for the confusing nature of its latest announcements on coronavirus and school attendance. On 30 December 2020 the government announced a series of changes to the plans for pupils’ return to school at the start of the spring term. These included a delay of a further week to the return of secondary aged pupils, with pupils in examination years returning from 11 January, and all other pupils on 18 January. Only vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers are able to attend in-person from 4 January. The delay is to allow schools to focus on being ready to deliver mass testing for pupils when they return. Children of primary school age will return from 4 January, but not in a number of local authority areas identified by the government as having particularly high infection rates. In these areas, which include the London boroughs of Hounslow and Hillingdon, the majority of pupils will not return before 18 January.
However, the delivery of this information by the secretary of state and the Department for Education (DfE) has been criticised for being muddled and incomplete. In his statement to the House of Commons Mr Williamson announced that some primary schools would not be returning from 4 January, but the list of which areas this would apply to was not immediately available. When it was subsequently published later that day, it had to be quickly amended as the London borough of Redbridge has been mistakenly omitted. There was further criticism that the rationale for which areas had been included – with some London boroughs closed while others with very similar infection rates remained open – had not been made clear. Finally on New Year's Day the government confirmed that all London primary schools would be closed.
Secondary schools were also critical that changes to the mass testing initiative were poorly communicated. Previously the guidance to schools had been that they were strongly encouraged to take up the offer of testing, but that it remained optional. It has now been made mandatory but this fact was not included in Mr Williamson’s initial statement, only becoming clear as he responded to questions from MPs. The new requirement was eventually communicated in writing in updated guidance published later. Further confusion arose around the provision of remote learning, with an initial line that schools would not need to provide remote education to all pupils during the week of 4 January. This was later supplanted by guidance that remote education should be prioritised for those in exam years, and also provided to other years ‘as resources permit’. The exact requirement is further blurred by the fact that the statutory duty on schools to provide remote education to all pupils is still in place.
In the aftermath of the latest announcements many teachers took to social media to vent their frustration at the opaque nature of the information presented. There was also criticism from unions and sector representatives. Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, commented: ‘Schools and colleges will be frustrated that the new arrangements for the spring term have once again been communicated late and after days of speculation. We appreciate this is a fast-developing situation but the government has made a habit of chaotic eleventh hour announcements which leave schools and colleges picking up the pieces.’
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