Last reviewed 24 August 2021

After a period of unprecedented disruption to education, schools are looking to the start of the new academic year. Michael Evans considers some of the challenges that will have to be faced at the start of the autumn term.

A new year and new challenges

The new academic year will bring many new challenges, and it is a time for strong school leadership, a clarity of purpose and a calm and proportionate approach to what will be a new normal.

A major priority will be that after about 18 months of disrupted education there will be an urgent need for pupils to catch up with lost learning.

Catch-up tutoring

The Government has introduced a National Tutoring Programme (NTP) that enables schools to access catch-up sessions from a list of approved providers.

Following criticism of the NTP’s centralised bureaucracy, at the beginning of July, the Government announced a new direct-to-schools tutoring fund to complement the NTP offer. This new fund, aimed at state-funded schools, including academies and free schools, will allocate £203 each to 60% of the pupils who are eligible for pupil premium. The DfE said that the remaining 40% of eligible pupils will be funded through NTP.

The DfE also confirmed that for the next academic year the grant will be calculated to cover 75% of the cost of locally sourced tuition, with schools meeting the cost of the remainder.

Challenges so far

The past months have proved that schools can be incredibly resourceful and adaptable. School leaders found themselves having to reinvent the way they delivered education, often at very short notice.

Once restrictions began to ease and face-to-face teaching began again, there were a new set of organisational problems, including social distancing and the wearing of face coverings. Start and finish times and lunch breaks had to be staggered and pupils had to be organised into bubbles to minimise the risk of infection.

If any member of a bubble had contact with someone who had tested positive, the whole bubble had to be sent home to self-isolate for ten days. By the end of the summer term, 934,000 children were self-isolating after a possible contact with a Covid-19 case.

Updated guidance

Updated guidance for the autumn term, published on 19 July 2021, listed a number of changes. Further guidance was issued on 17 August.

For the start of the autumn term, all 9 million secondary pupils should receive two on-site lateral flow device tests three to five days apart. This will obviously be a logistical challenge, and many schools have said that as a result, full opening will have to be delayed for at least a week.

Once term proper begins, pupils and staff should then undertake twice weekly home tests until the end of September, when this policy will be reviewed. Staff and pupils who test positive should stay at home until they receive a free PCR test, which should be taken within two days. If the result is positive, they must continue to self-isolate for ten days, but if it is negative, they can return to school.

Schools have been told that “bubbles” will no longer be a requirement and assemblies can resume. Staggered starts will no longer be necessary, and pupils will not need to avoid mixing at lunch. Despite this, a poll of more than 1,200 senior leaders indicated that during the autumn term, nearly one in five schools plan to stagger the start or end of the school day.

The requirement for face coverings has ceased to be a legal requirement in schools and the Government no longer advises their use for pupils, staff, and visitors, either in classrooms or communal areas. However, one in eight schools reports that they will ask that masks continue to be worn in class.

Face coverings continue to be expected and recommended in enclosed and crowded spaces such as public transport and dedicated transport to school or college.

Schools will no longer be responsible for contact tracing since close contacts will be identified via NHT Test and Trace. Instead of being required to self-isolate, children under the age of 18 who have been contacted by NHS Test and Trace will be advised to take a PCR test.

Over 18-year-olds will be treated in the same way as younger pupils until four months after their 18th birthday. This is to allow them to get vaccinated. Should they choose not to be vaccinated, if they are identified as a close contact, they will have to self-isolate in the same way as the rest of the adult population.

School leaders are reminded of the requirement to have contingency plans in place that describe procedures to be followed in the event of pupils or staff testing positive for Covid-19. These plans should be robust and kept up to date by following the latest Government advice. They should give details of how the school will operate in the event of fresh restrictions being introduced.

The contingency plan should cover:

  • roles and responsibilities

  • when and how to seek public health advice

  • types of control measures that might need to be put in place.

Revised risk assessments should ensure that control measures are proportionate and comply with health and safety law. Since these measures might need to be put in place at short notice, each control measure should include:

  • urgent actions that might need to be taken

  • how to ensure that procedures are in place for all pupils to continue to receive the quantity and quality of education and support to which they are normally entitled

  • chains of communication with parents, pupils, carers and staff to notify them of any emergency changes.

It has always been difficult to determine what constitutes an outbreak. The guidance suggests that extra action should be taken by schools if 5 individuals, who are likely to have mixed closely, test positive for Covid-19 within a ten-day period.

Should this threshold be reached, there should be an immediate review of testing, hygiene, and ventilation measures, with consideration given to whether exercise, assemblies, or classes, could take place outside.

This suggestion has not found favour with teaching unions and school leaders, who are unhappy at the thought of schools being expected to move lessons outdoors as “temperatures plummet” from September. In spite of this, it has been reported that 4% of teachers said that they would teach outdoors.

Should case rates rise in the local area, or numbers of cases significantly increase in the school, advice might be given for the school to introduce some further measures, such as short-term closures.

However, it is considered vital to maintain face to face education as far as possible, with schools ensuring that pupils continue to receive high quality remote education if forced to isolate at home.

Online resources that were created during the pandemic should be repurposed and improved to support home learning and homework on an ongoing basis. It is imperative for every child to have access to an internet-connected device, plus necessary data allowances.

A major problem is the unpredictability of the Covid-19 virus. A fresh outbreak could cause disruption at any time and schools must be prepared for this eventuality.

Clear ongoing guidance is needed

It must be stressed that while this topic has endeavoured to include the latest available advice, fresh advice can come at any time and often does. At the height of the 2020 lockdown, school leaders were receiving an average of three policy updates a day. These included 74 unique guidance documents, each of which was usually updated three times.

Further concerns

The new school year has brought concerns at the DfE’s desire for there now to be a return to normal, with the accountability system that existed prior to the Covid-19 outbreak. The view of the professional associations is that there will be nothing normal about the next academic year and that this is a crucial time where a calm focus on recovery is needed, without unnecessary and unhelpful distractions.

An issue at the top of the list for secondary schools is the question of summer exams for 2022. The Secretary of State maintains that exams are the best form of assessment, and that these will definitely be taking place.

School leaders are stressing that information and guidance with respect to the nature and content of these exams needs to be made available as a priority. Further information has been promised, but school leaders are pressing for this information to be made available sooner rather than later.

There is also the question of contingency planning in the event of a further interruption next summer. The point has been forcibly made that it is not enough to simply assume that the examinations will be taking place on a certain date, it is essential to have a back-up Plan B in case this should not be possible.

A further important issue is one of data security. A recent survey suggested that during lockdown many teachers had been using personal mobile phones and laptops for school-based work and that nearly two thirds of respondents said that they intended to continue to use personal devices on returning to school.

It is pointed out that hackers could use these often-unsecured devices as points of entry to access sensitive school data. Since this presents a grave risk, it is essential for schools to ensure that robust policies for internet security are in place.

Hopes for the future

As is always the case, school leaders will do their utmost to ensure that within the limits that have been set, their pupils will receive the best possible education that can be provided. The new school year will be a definite challenge and hopefully future support will recognise the professional competence and resourcefulness of school managers and their proven ability to manage.

Summary

  • New challenges.

  • Government catch-up plans.

  • Latest government guidance.

  • Further concerns.

  • Hopes for the future.