Reopening schools not safe for young pupils, education expert warns

Prof Colin Diamond, chair of education leadership at the University of Birmingham, warned that social distancing for young pupils might be too much of a challenge

Reopening schools in England to young children on 1 June compromises safety, an educational expert from the University of Birmingham has said.

Prof Colin Diamond, chair of education leadership at the university and a former deputy education commissioner for the city of Birmingham, advised the Department for Education (DfE) against “a mass return of young children to school”.

The DfE has said it would like a phased return to schools in England, beginning with pupils in reception, year one and year six. The government has also said it hopes pupils facing exams next year, namely those in year 10 and 12, would get classroom time before the summer break.

Prof Diamond said “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”. He added that “many are asking why England might look so different from Scotland and Wales” on 1 June, when the ‘stay at home’ policy remains in place in the devolved regions.

Before becoming an academic, Prof Diamond worked as an associate headteacher and was chief education adviser for the DfE’s academies and free schools programme. He said he sympathised with headteachers, who faced a very difficult decision.

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?

He said although reopening schools may be practical for some older children, it would be nigh impossible to enforce social distancing in a classroom of five- and six-year-olds.

“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,” he explained.

One headteacher told Independent Education Today (IET) that his school would introduce strict measures to make the return to classrooms safe.

Classes at Edge Grove School in Hertfordshire will be limited to 15 pupils or less, pupils will be unable to mix in class or at break, parents won’t be able to enter the building, there will be frequent hand washing, fewer specialist lessons due to staff shortages and limited use of concrete resources.

“They will, however, be able to socialise, see their friends and teachers in person rather than on a screen and regain some semblance of normality – which is so important for children of any age,” said Edge Grove head Ben Evans.

Another headteacher told IET that distance learning had worked well for year six pupils, but said “reception and year one children would benefit from face-to-face contact with their teachers; at their young age, missing a term’s tuition from teachers who can give you feedback in real time represents a substantial part of their schooling”.

Christopher King, chief executive of the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS), which has more than 670 members, said he expects the majority of member schools in England to partially reopen from 1 June.

If you’re asking teachers on top of that to perform two tricks at the same time, to deliver online and teach in the classroom, we may be asking just too much

He told the Press Association (PA): “It could be that a few schools decide that they won’t open for year six because there’s so much confidence now in the way in which the online teaching is going, and not enough confidence that parents will want to send their children back in large enough numbers.

“Many prep schools, for example, offer subject specialist teaching by the time you get to year six.

“At the moment online the children will be getting that specialist education. The vast majority of schools are teaching a normal timetable with the specialist teacher in front of them, albeit remotely and virtually in that way.

“So, the schools need to be confident that what they’re going to offer will be superior to what they can do online. If you’re asking teachers on top of that to perform two tricks at the same time, to deliver online and teach in the classroom, we may be asking just too much.”

Caroline Jordan, headmistress at Headington School, told PA it was right that schools should be reopening and that hers would be among those opening classrooms for reception, year one and year six pupils in early June.

The school will use electronic temperature checks and thermal cameras when children arrive, and it has installed new sinks outside for hand washing.

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