Schools’ responses to Covid-19: Returning pupils to school

Caroline Sharp, David Sims, Simon Rutt

01 June 2020

On 10th May the Prime Minister announced a phased return of some children to school In England from 1st June. Schools have been closed to all but vulnerable and keyworker children since 20th March, meaning that most children have been educated at home for a period of ten weeks, and some year groups are not expected to return to school until the autumn.

Nevertheless, opening their schools to selected year groups (Nursery, Reception, Year 1 and 6 in primary schools and Year 10 and 12 pupils in secondary schools) as well as continuing on-site provision for vulnerable and keyworker children and providing distance learning for others is a considerable challenge for school leaders. In this report we set out our initial findings on how prepared school leaders are for opening more fully, what challenges they face and what guidance and support they need.

This report is based on findings from a national survey of 1,233 senior leaders in publicly-funded, mainstream primary and secondary schools in England. Responses between 7th and 17th May have been weighted by phase and free school meal (FSM) eligibility to provide a nationally representative picture. Note that because senior leaders were answering  questions over a ten-day period, some responses pre-date the Prime Minister’s announcement on the 10th May and the publication of DfE guidance from the 12th to the 25th May

Key Findings

School leaders have fewer teaching staff available at a time when they need more:
In May, school leaders were operating with 75 per cent of their normal teaching capacity. Over a fifth (29 per cent) of teachers who are available to work are only able to work at home. Senior leaders explained that they will need extra staff to teach and supervise pupils while on site, provide distance learning for pupils at home and/or cover for absent staff, plus additional funding to pay for this. This will affect schools’ ability to provide the same level of teaching quality and curriculum breadth, as well as managing more teaching in school alongside continuing support for remote learning.

Senior leaders predict that when schools open to more pupils, 46 per cent of families, on average, will keep their children at home:
Senior leaders with the highest proportion of free school meal (FSM) pupils estimate that more of their children’s families will keep them at home (50 per cent on average) compared with an average estimate of 42 per cent from leaders with the lowest proportion of FSM pupils. This raises concerns that pupils in most need of access to education will be least likely to receive it. In line with the advice from SAGE (2020), clear messages will be needed from Government to encourage families to allow their children to return.

Before schools were closed to the majority, the pandemic had the greatest impact on schools serving the most deprived pupils:
Before 20 March, leaders from schools with the highest proportion of FSM pupils were more likely to report that they had experienced a significant drop in numbers of pupils attending school (73 per cent) than those with the lowest proportion of FSM pupils (57 per cent). This suggests that the differential impact of the pandemic on disadvantaged pupils dates back to the period before lockdown.

Most school leaders feel unprepared for resuming a range of activities when more pupils return to school:
School leaders feel least prepared for managing pupil movement around school (66 per cent) and organising school space to enable social distancing (65 per cent). However, 65 per cent of primary and 73 per cent of secondary leaders think it would be at least somewhat feasible to operate a rota with different year groups or classes in school on different days. This suggests that school leaders might be willing to adopt the option explored by SAGE (2020) for schools to split classes and rotate attendance every one or two weeks.

Opening to more pupils in June considered less feasible for primary schools:
In May, only 18 per cent of primary school leaders felt it was very/entirely feasible to open their schools to more pupils this month. Some commented that it is simply not possible for them to ensure social distancing because children are too young to understand the rules and/or their school buildings are unsuitable. Recent Government guidance has aimed to address some of the concerns of primary schools, particularly around enforcing social distancing for young children.

Primary school leaders will also find it harder to manage a combination of face-to-face and distance learning (66 per cent of primary leaders felt unprepared for this compared with 52 per cent of secondary leaders). Secondary leaders are more positive about opening their schools’ to more pupils, with 37 per cent saying this is very/entirely feasible. It should be noted that secondary schools are being asked to take fewer year groups and not every day.

The findings suggest that the pandemic has had a greater impact on schools in the West Midlands, North West and London:
School leaders were most likely to report some impact from Covid-19 on their schools in terms of the availability of staff and pupil attendance prior to 20 March if they were based in the West Midlands (84 per cent), London (82 per cent) and the North West (79 per cent) compared with school leaders in the East Midlands (61 per cent). School leaders were also more likely to estimate that a higher percentage of families would keep their children at home if they were based in the North West (50 per cent on average) compared with leaders in the South West (41 per cent on average).

Frequent cleaning and handwashing most essential safety measures:
Most senior leaders say that frequent cleaning (96 per cent) and regular handwashing/sanitising (94 per cent) are very necessary/essential for safety when opening their schools to more pupils. Over half (56 per cent) consider it very necessary/essential to have access to personal protective equipment (PPE), although recent government guidance has sought to address this issue. Most feel at least somewhat prepared for maintaining hygiene when they open their schools to more pupils (66 per cent).

Senior leaders want the Government to provide clear, detailed and realistic guidance to schools on opening to more pupils:
Senior leaders want information from the Government (and to a lesser extent from local authorities and trusts) on how to manage social distancing. They want to know what is expected of schools, and under what circumstances there is flexibility for leaders to reduce the number of pupils on site. Recent government guidance may have addressed some of these issues.