Date: August 2020
As Headteacher of Southend High School for Boys, I am not alone in looking forward to having a full complement of pupils back in school, actively learning, socialising and being socialised! Our pupils have not only missed out on being in school, they miss school itself. The community is a vibrant and energetic place of learning. Our pupils are keen to return to lessons, with their friends but also – and even more so – eager to return to the extraordinary array of music, sport, drama, art, adventure ... as our recent promotional film celebrates: the ‘sky is the limit’ for learning at our school.
Lockdown brought so much of that to a standstill. On March 17th the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education announced, in parallel, the end of normal school provision from the following Monday. Schools had three days notice, without any prior indication, as they went from full normal operation into the ‘closure’ period.
Those three days – under exceptional pressure of circumstance – afforded us a brief window to plan for the translation of our entire curriculum provision into a remote learning format. The whole timetable moved seamlessly from classrooms to the internet, with daily tasks and activities presented for every pupil each morning – replicating their lessons for that day.
Since lockdown, over 250,000 separate assignments have been completed by our students; and, utilising the best elements of web-based technologies, individual feedback has been provided to our pupils on almost 50,000 of these submissions. Regular home communication also ensured the well-being of those for whom the closure period has been a genuine challenge.
Our teachers at Southend High School for Boys and across the country, wherever this has happened, rightly deserve recognition and credit for sustaining education in this way.
Now, these very same exceptional efforts must be refocused into planning for September. The intention is to resume learning across the whole curriculum with specialist teachers leading lessons in their own subjects for all pupils. It sounds like normal school, but the challenge is to manage this whilst minimising all the possible risks to health.
We cannot wait until COVID-19 has subsided.
Any delay might have unwelcome and detrimental consequences: for pupils and their learning, for families and their well-being, for working parents and their businesses.
Although children seem not to be especially impacted by infection, young adults do propagate the virus and transmit the disease extensively. Our staff are keen to see school resume but, like any other group of adults in the wider community, there are some who will be at increased risk or have legitimate anxieties.
The Government guidance that applies to all schools and colleges acknowledges this challenge. There are very few requirements, beyond a key instruction - ‘Schools must do everything possible to minimise contacts and mixing while delivering a broad and balanced curriculum’. This might be achieved in many different ways. There has been much reporting on ‘year group bubbles’ but this is actually only a suggestion and not a requirement.
Many of England’s historic school buildings are densely populated with narrow corridors. Typical school classrooms from the 1920s are compact. With a two-metre physical distance between all those present, such rooms can only accommodate a maximum of 10 pupils and one teacher. Even a one-metre separation is too great to permit the whole class in for a lesson.
Southend High Schools for Boys is exceptionally popular and we accommodate as many pupils as possible. As a result, at any one time, across the entire site, there will never be no more than one or two rooms that are empty and not in use. This is clearly an efficient use of our classroom space, but provides no capacity for dispersing our pupils any more extensively.
If we cannot achieve physical distancing we need to limit social mixing instead. However, secondary schools routinely have classes that cross over with each other in different combinations with ‘sets’ for Maths and dedicated groups for GCSE option choices. Science, Computing and Design Technology require the use of specialist laboratories or workshops, so rooms must also be shared.
And, of course, the challenges extend beyond the school gates too. Full reopening needs to exhibit consistency in social and physical distancing in school, but also on journeys and during parental collection.
The problems are clear, the solution is in the hands of each Headteacher. Our schools will find a way to make it work: it is not so much ‘Dunkirk spirit’ as deep logistics! Every school will be planning within the constraints of pupil journeys, buildings, classrooms and staffing. We will continue to play our part in the national response to the pandemic and will support all learners to achieve their best. Southend High School for Boys will be one, amongst the many local schools, that will – by September – be mapping a new model of outstanding provision for our pupils.
Dr. Robin M. Bevan - Headteacher
Southend High School for Boys