Teachers urge changes to 2021 exams as schools plan pupils’ return | Education

From one-way systems through corridors to meals on playing fields, schools across Britain are trying to plan ahead to help them reopen. Yet as they prepare for a phased return of pupils, many are still wrestling with the most basic practicalities.

“I would struggle to get a third of the school back,” said Robin Bevan, headteacher at Southend High School for Boys, having made some rough calculations about how the current social distancing rules would work in his 1,300-pupil secondary. “You can’t come up with the solution until you know the social distancing parameters.”

Ministers have said that the school return will be managed in stages, perhaps with key year groups or age cohorts returning before others. More details will be revealed this week, but scientists advising the government have been studying the possibility of rotating pupils on a “week on, week off” basis. It comes amid split scientific opinion about the role children play in spreading Covid-19.

In the meantime, school leaders have been trying to be creative as they plan ahead. They have been looking at continuing some lessons online for months to come, adding extra cleaning sessions for school buildings and enforcing one-way flows through corridors for pupils returning to school where possible. However, teachers told the Observer that they kept running into fundamental problems that creativity cannot solve.

“When I read about Denmark going back to school, the first thing that struck me was that many walked or cycled,” said Bevan. “That is not possible for us in the same way, with many students commuting some distance. Part of me wants to see the school reopen as soon as possible. I love it. I miss it. There’s another part that says, ‘hold on a minute – even playing with ideas around doing it is too early’.”

He said there was little spare room in the school, which was originally designed for a fraction of the current student numbers and has a 97% room occupancy rate.

As well as the practicalities of returning, however, teachers are also concerned about educational priorities when pupils are back.

Niamh Sweeney, a sixth form teacher in Cambridge, said: “I think education as normal is a very long way off and the remote learning we’re doing now will become part of that new normal. For our students to come back, there’s the practical stuff on physical distancing, but there is also the emotional preparation. There’s no way next year’s exams should be based on the full curriculum.”

Howard Payne, headteacher at Medina Primary School, near Portsmouth, said his experience so far had led to concerns about enforcing social distancing among young children.

“We have only eight children at the moment, but children do gravitate to each other,” he said. “Our corridors are very narrow. We’re getting a whole host of these issues and trying to think about how to keep social distancing in place. We’re up in the air.”

School meals are another issue worrying him. He said: “If it’s summer and the weather’s good, we’ve got a field. They could all separate. However, the school meals will have to start a lot earlier. You have to get the children in and out quickly, but that will be hard. Lunchtimes and playtimes are a challenge.”

Such are the disruptions that teaching unions are already saying that next year’s exams will have to be remodelled. Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “There’s an assumption that next year the GCSEs, A-levels and SATs will just take place in the same way as they did in 2019. I think that’s a questionable assumption. We may have to look at a different form of assessment.

“Many children will be traumatised by what has happened. Some will be hungry. Somemight have been subjected to emotional or physical abuse. Some will have stressed parents, or be stressed about being in cramped accommodation. What they need is a curriculum and an experience in school that brings them back into society and learning.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are working in close consultation with the sector as we consider how to reopen schools, nurseries and colleges when the time is right, and will ensure everyone has sufficient notice to plan and prepare.”

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