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Mission impossible? An expert opinion on the safe re-opening of English primary schools

Should parents trust the government's policy about re-opening schools? Colin Diamond, Professor of Educational Leadership at Birmingham University, offers an expert analysis

Should parents trust the UK government? Latest announcements on easing of coronavirus-related lockdown in England (including the re-opening of schools) are confusing at best – and at odds with policies in other areas of the United Kingdom. Colin Diamond, Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Birmingham, offers an expert analysis.

So what do we know now in the light of the latest news on easing the lockdown? Primary schools in England could begin to re-open from 1 June for Reception, Year One and Year Six children. Remember that they are already open for the children of key workers and those seen as vulnerable. Some never closed over the Easter break.

Tough negotiations between Department for Education officials and the teacher professional associations preceded the announcement. Whilst there was a consensus about bringing back the Year Six children to finish their time at primary school, proposals to restart Reception and Year One met strenuous resistance.

Young children are naturally tactile and want to hug each other

Common sense tells us that maintaining a socially distanced classroom with five and six year olds is all but impossible. Many heads have told me that they could accommodate a maximum of six children per classroom to keep distance. Imagine how that would feel for young children with staff perhaps wearing masks and other forms of PPE? And what is meant to happen at playtime? Young children are naturally tactile and want to hug each other. If they are upset they need a friendly hug from the nearest adult, dusting down and off they go.

We know that heads of infant schools, the real experts on this age group, are most concerned about children’s lack of social development during lockdown. Introducing them to an artificially segregated classroom environment could make things worse for some children.

Only headteachers can determine whether a school is safe to open

Headteachers are responsible for health and safety in their schools. Only they can determine whether a school is safe to open or partially open for big numbers of children. In addition to securing the well-being of the children they must make sure that their staff are safe. So far, during lockdown, PPE has been available to special school staff and those in mainstream schools providing for children with high level medical and physical needs.

Many staff are apprehensive about returning to schools repopulated with full classes without the necessary personal protection afforded to NHS and other key workers. We also have to add the non-availability of up to 25% of staff who need to self-protect for a range of health reasons.

There isn’t a headteacher in the country who doesn’t want to see their school full of children again. They are mindful that as every week passes, the gap between those children from comfortable, secure homes with screens galore and those who do not have those advantages will widen.

But there is growing professional resistance to schools being put on the front line to re-booting the economy without full consideration of what’s involved. Many are asking why England might look so different from Scotland and Wales in three weeks’ time where the ‘stay at home’ policy has been endorsed by the devolved governments.

There is now an opportunity to digest the government advice and reach a position that headteachers can support which offers good social and learning experiences without compromising safety. That cannot, right now, involve a mass return of young children to school.

About the author

Colin DiamondColin Diamond has worked in the field of educational leadership for many years in England.

He has been a Head of Faculty, Associate Headteacher, Local Education Authority Adviser, Assistant Director and Director of Education/Children’s Services. He led improvements in two local authorities taking them from government intervention to strong performance. He has also worked for the Department for Education in England as Head of Education Advisers for the Academies and Free Schools Programme.

He was Deputy Education Commissioner in Birmingham and he was also an OfSTED inspector. He was an associate lecturer at three universities before taking the chair of education leadership at the University of Birmingham.