Sunday, 24 January 2021
HEADTEACHERS have expressed their frustration at the Government’s 11th hour decision to close schools and switch to remote learning.
Boris Johnson announced on Monday evening that all schools, colleges and universities would be shut for the majority of students until at least the February half-term as the coronavirus pandemic worsens.
Some had been back just a day after the Government insisted at the weekend it was safe for children to return at the start of term.
But then the Prime Minister announced a third nationwide lockdown in less than a year, saying that hospitals were under more pressure from covid-19 than at any time since the start of the pandemic.
Like last year, GCSEs and A-Level exams have been cancelled and teacher-led assessments will be used to determine grades instead.
Strict measures have been introduced to tackle the spread of the virus following a surge in infections being attributed to a new, highly transmissible, strain of the disease.
People should stay at home other than for a handful of reasons such as work that cannot be done at home, food shopping, medical or care needs and exercising outdoors once a day.
Like the first lockdown, vulnerable children and those of key workers are able to attend school but most pupils will learn at home. Nurseries and other early years settings will remain open as normal.
Valley Road Primary in Henley was due to welcome back pupils on Tuesday so had only a few hours’ notice that it would have to switch online lessons for most pupils.
Headteacher Tim Coulson said: “It would have been easier for schools if we had been informed earlier.
“All the teachers had organised their work on the assumption that children would be coming into school. If this had been decided sooner and we had been told on New Year’s Day, for example, we would have had everything organised and ready for Monday but now we have lost several days of work.
“The important thing is for children to continue with their education and for the parents to get the support they need. In some cases, it has been quite frightening because they have just got used to be being back at school.
“Our responsibilities are huge and we take those very seriously.”
The school is supporting families by sending iPads to children who require help with technology.
Mr Coulson says parents and staff had been very supportive in difficult circumstances and he was positive about going back to remote learning.
“Nothing will be as good as the children being in school,” he said. “Parents have to work and they will be stressed by this situation. Our job is not to add to that stress.
“I am very positive about the future — you have to be and you can’t project negativity on to the children. I do believe that with the vaccinations more people will be able to revert to a more normal life and we will pull through.”
Badgemore Primary School in Hop Gardens was not re-opening anyway as staff had made it clear they were not comfortable returning and six had tested positive for coronavirus at the end of last term.
Headteacher Tim Hoskins said: “We didn’t feel it was safe to have the children back into school. It was partly in light of the fact that, over the Christmas period, six members of staff caught coronavirus and it just made us re-evaluate our position and how dangerous the virus is.
“We were not surprised and it was clear additional measures would have to be taken but I was a bit annoyed because I think Boris Johnson could have made the decision last week.
“We were worried about it last week and we consulted all of our staff and they all said they didn’t feel safe at school.
“Until the end of last term, we hadn’t had a single child or members of staff with the virus.”
Mr Hoskins said staff would do all they could to support pupils and their families.
He added: “We did very well in the first lockdown and I think we are going to do even better this time. We have a parent meeting once a week to talk through the challenges people are facing. We are going to make an extra effort to make sure we do everything we can but it is going to be a challenge for parents to home-school and balance their work.”
Benson Primary School headteacher Helen Crolla said she had “sort of half expected” the Prime Minister’s announcement but added: “There had been a very definitive message on Sunday from Boris Johnson that schools would not be closing so we were proceeding on the basis that we would doing face-to-face teaching on Tuesday.
“When the message to close came at 8pm on Monday, which was incredibly late for both schools and parents, that put immense pressure on us organisationally.”
The school is now using home-learning resources on its website and each class will have one lesson per day via Zoom as well as an optional workshop. Staff are also teaching about 50 pupils, out of a school roll of 250, in school.
Mrs Crolla said: “It’s not just about providing the care in school, it’s making sure we have got high quality learning for those children who are out of school and putting those learning activities up in a way that enables parents to support them.
“For some families they need to do more after the parents have finished work at 5pm — every family is different.
“It’s just incredibly challenging. If I had any advice for government, I’d say, ‘Please, please listen to what people say’.”
Catharine Darnton, headteacher of Gillotts School in Henley, said: “It is good to have some clarity on what we are being asked to provide for the next six weeks. This is the third plan we have made since December 18 and to know it will ‘last’ gives everyone some much-needed stability.
“We never want to be closed to so many — a school is not a school without its students. However, we have learned a lot about remote education since last March and are confident that we can support them over this lockdown with all the additional care that their parents will provide.
“Our main concern is Year 11, who have been given only the vaguest information on how their GCSEs are to be awarded. This is a huge level of uncertainty for them to be carrying, especially given all they will have read and heard about last summer.”
Julia Harrington, headmistress at Queen Anne’s School in Caversham, said: “There will be a pressure on schools to fit in things like mock exams to make sure the children have the opportunity to perform and be equitable if we have to do centre-assessed grades again.
“What we would all like is a little bit more certainty from the Government and the exam boards as to how that might look. The big question for our young people is where does this leave them? They have been working towards these exams for many years. Last year’s cohort didn’t feel they had a chance to show what they could do, even if they were dreading sitting the exams.
“The challenge for us is to make sure the grades are fair and also that the students deserve those grades because that is very important for their mental wellbeing and self-esteem.
“My view is that sitting kids in a room, asking them to remember as much as they can and thinking that is a measure of their intelligence, is ridiculous.
“This is our opportunity to make sure that the assessment system is much better at recognising their worth and potential in a way that is far more useful for universities and employers.”
Mrs Harrington, who has led the independent girls’ school for 14 years, said the decision to close schools was inevitable.
“I wasn’t surprised because there are so many concerns with the virus,” she said. “I was surprised by the length of the lockdown but given what is going on it is probably very sensible.
“The timing of the communication has been a problem for primary schools. All we would ever ask for is clarity.
“We had taken delivery of all our testing kits and worked hard over the holidays to put risk assessments in place and now the boxes will set there for quite a while.
“It is a difficult situation and I do feel for the Government. They are having to make decisions in a situation that we have never seen before but I would like to see them trusting the schools a bit more to decide what is right for them as a community.”
Tyrone Howe, headmaster at Shiplake College, said: “What has been frustrating for us is the lack of clarity and the timing of the information that has come out.
“We had guidance that came out at the end of last term and I was sitting there thinking about it while I was having my turkey on Christmas Day.
“There were a large number of people who worked every day last week and then we have had to react very quickly to the announcement. I have no problem having to respond to that guidance and it is our responsibility to do that.
“But teachers have been working incredibly hard on the basis that they would be returning to school and for that to change in such a short space of time is tough. Certainly, there could have been greater clarity and sooner. We feel very confident that we can deliver a fantastic online provision. The response among the staff last time was outstanding.”
Nick Armitage, headmaster of Rupert House School in Henley, said: “We are completely supportive of the response the Government has made in trying to keep us all safe.
“We had it in the back of our minds that this could be a reality and the staff have been working really hard so that we can move fairly seamlessly to online learning, as we did during the last lockdown.
“The parents have been very supportive and we have been in constant contact with them over the last week or so to make sure we had everything in place.”
Pupils at the independent school in Bell Street were due to return on Wednesday.
It will remain open during the lockdown for vulnerable and key worker children and there will also be a nursery provision.
Mr Armitage, who started as head in September, added: “The Government have the data and we have to trust they are doing the very best they can.
“Clearly, they wanted to be able to keep schools open, as we all do as teaching professionals. We would much rather have the children in school if we possibly can.
“However, we have to be mindful that we are in the midst of a horrendous pandemic and anything we can do to reduce the spread of infection we have to support.”
Rob Harmer, headteacher of St Mary’s School in Henley, said his team were well prepared for the switch back to online lessons.
He said: “I don’t think the announcement was an enormous surprise but it is not what anyone would want.
“We are in a good position to support all of our families and the key worker children will still be coming into school. Our nursery will also remain open.
“We are pretty upbeat because we know we can do it and the staff have what they need in terms of support from our senior leadership team. We learned a lot last time in terms of how best to approach teaching and supporting the children.
“Their wellbeing is just as important as their learning and we feel confident that we can do a good job again.”
The independent school in St Andrew’s Road is providing all pupils in years 3 to 6 with their own personal laptop.
Mr Harmer said: “This is a huge positive, enabling us to ensure a seamless education online for as long as it is needed.
“It also future- proofs any issues arising if a pupil should need to self-isolate as they continue to access their learning while working remotely.”
07 January 2021
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