Jenni Osborn


Schools and The Great Return

This week I have begun putting together a 2020 ‘time capsule’, which has mainly involved coaxing my 10 year old into giving me something to write down about how he is ‘feeling’ and what he is ‘thinking’ that’s beyond “I want to bury my head in a screen and never have to engage the world again, thank you very much”. Unsuccessfully, I have to say! But as I wrote my own thoughts and feelings down I realised a couple of things. Firstly, I’m really stressed and having difficulty really feeling much beyond that. Secondly, if there is going to be any attempt to return our children to school (please God they will be returning to something that resembles a routine that only involves me at the very beginning of the day and at the end!) then I have some ideas about how this could happen that might work better than just ‘Everybody back to school, now!’

There are naturally a number of factors to take into consideration and these are just those that have occurred to me, there’s likely to be more:





Getting school buildings ready for The Great Return seems to be an obvious starting point. This needs to include deep cleaning of all communal areas, fixing all broken toilet blocks and providing soap and hand dryers for every hand washing station.

Of course health should be the number 1 priority. How will the Government give assurances to head teachers, staff, parents and pupils that it IS safe for pupils to return? We need to see a plan to open schools fully that includes a strategic look at the infection modelling and careful listening to scientists from other countries who are ahead of us to figure out when will the right time to restart schools. The next two factors very much play into this.

Staffing considerations are essential. My eldest’s secondary school had to close two days before the government announced closure because of staff shortages due to sickness or quarantine measures that were already in place. So, are there enough staff available? Is it the staff who have had the virus (and therefore could have some immunity) who would be required to work, or those who haven’t (and therefore are virus free)? There’ll be people smarter than me who can give their educated opinion on this, I have no idea! Then we would need to think about where the school staff live. Do they live and work in the same town? We’ll come back to this question in a minute.

Timing is of course going to be key, not only are we waiting for the curve to flatten (not to begin flattening, but actually to be nearing ground zero) nationally, we are also, surely, waiting for those who are working on a vaccine. There’s a sense in which the best time for The Great Return will be at the point at which all school aged children can be vaccinated, but that seems like it’ll be a long way off and, of course, will require full parental buy-in.

It seems to me that The Great Return to schools will be best handled in stages and possibly by geographical area. If you are in an area where social distancing and staying at home has done the job of keeping virus numbers low then, provided there isn’t too much travel between that town or county and others with higher infection rates, perhaps your schools will go back first. This is where the crucial question about where staff travel in from comes in. If your staff commute from a town or county where the infection rate has been higher then we might fall back on the old ‘snow day’ protocol whereby teaching staff where required to present themselves at the nearest school if they were unable to travel to their own school. That would not be without its problems, including potential for issues around Child Protection and Safeguarding but these extraordinary times call for some extraordinary solutions and if our Government can come up with badges for care home workers then surely they can do the same for school staff?

So perhaps The Great Return should be staggered, by geographical area, by year groups or by ‘health’ groups i.e. those with underlying medical conditions should be treated differently. Staff should work if they live in an area where the schools are opening, even if that means working in a different school community to the norm. The Government needs to consider how they will overcome any potential safeguarding issues. Underpinning all of this, parents, pupils and school staff especially leaders all need to have confidence in the Government’s plan for The Great Return to School. And as I write this I am chuckling to myself because since when have schools ever really had confidence in Government plans for education? The biggest problem since the Labour years (in my opinion) has been Government decision-making leaving schools on the back foot.

Every. Single. Time.

Will this be any different? Come on, Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education, do the right thing and draw up a fully detailed plan for how this will happen. Involve school leaders as well as your colleagues and make your mark as an Education Secretary who listens and acts for the good of schools, not for political gain.