Back to school: what can pupils in England expect from September?

After months of disruption, the government has said it will be compulsory for all pupils in England to return to school from September. New guidance has been published, offering advice on everything from choirs and classroom ventilation to Covid-19 testing kits and corridor management. These are the headlines.

Staggered journeys to school

The government wants schools to stagger the start and end of the day to keep groups of students apart and avoid congestion, with staggered lunch and break times to minimise contact. While some schools have been practising this with limited numbers of pupils, it is likely to be significantly more complex when 1,500 teenagers return from their enforced break at the beginning of September.

Headteachers say transport to and from school will be one of the biggest challenges. While dedicated school buses can be managed to a certain degree, schools have no control when it comes to public transport. Pupils over the age of 11 must wear face masks, which must be safely removed at the school entrance, but the use of public transport should be kept to an absolute minimum. Ministers would like pupils to walk and cycle where possible, but that will be impossible for many.

Bigger protective bubbles

Rather than measuring social distance by the metre in schools, the new government guidance talks about minimising contact and using protective bubbles. Initially the maximum number of children in a bubble was 15; in primaries that has been expanded to 30 and in large secondaries a bubble may have to incorporate an entire year group made up of hundreds of pupils. The bubbles must be kept away from each other throughout the day, in different areas of the building, but staff can move between bubbles so long as they keep their distance.

The idea is to reduce transmission of the virus and that if a pupil tests positive, fewer people have to self-isolate. School leaders have their doubts about how well this might work in often cramped sites with little outdoor space. “The logistics of keeping apart many different ‘bubbles’ of children in a full school, including whole-year groups comprising hundreds of pupils, is mind boggling,” said Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

Will there be a second wave of coronavirus?

Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics.

How and why multiple-wave outbreaks occur, and how subsequent waves of infection can be prevented, has become a staple of epidemiological modelling studies and pandemic preparation, which have looked at everything from social behaviour and health policy to vaccination and the buildup of community immunity, also known as herd immunity.

This is being watched very carefully. Without a vaccine, and with no widespread immunity to the new disease, one alarm is being sounded by the experience of Singapore, which has seen a sudden resurgence in infections despite being lauded for its early handling of the outbreak.

Although Singapore instituted a strong contact tracing system for its general population, the disease re-emerged in cramped dormitory accommodation used by thousands of foreign workers with inadequate hygiene facilities and shared canteens.

Singapore’s experience, although very specific, has demonstrated the ability of the disease to come back strongly in places where people are in close proximity and its ability to exploit any weakness in public health regimes set up to counter it.

In June 2020, Beijing suffered from a new cluster of coronavirus cases which caused authorities to re-implement restrictions that China had previously been able to lift. In the UK, the city of Leicester was unable to come out of lockdown because of the development of a new spike of coronavirus cases.

Conventional wisdom among scientists suggests second waves of resistant infections occur after the capacity for treatment and isolation becomes exhausted. In this case the concern is that the social and political consensus supporting lockdowns is being overtaken by public frustration and the urgent need to reopen economies.

The threat declines when susceptibility of the population to the disease falls below a certain threshold or when widespread vaccination becomes available.

In general terms the ratio of susceptible and immune individuals in a population at the end of one wave determines the potential magnitude of a subsequent wave. The worry is that with a vaccine still many months away, and the real rate of infection only being guessed at, populations worldwide remain highly vulnerable to both resurgence and subsequent waves.

Peter Beaumont

The new-look classroom

With the teacher at the front of class, and pupils sitting at well-spaced desks, all facing forward, classrooms may look rather old-fashioned to children and young people used to greater freedoms in school. The guidance says windows should be kept open where possible to maximise ventilation and suggests singing and music lessons might be held outside because of the heightened risk of infection. School-wide assemblies are banned and use of staff rooms should be “minimised”.

Some relaxation of the school curriculum

The government is keen to send out the message that it will be business as usual, with a return to a full timetable and broad curriculum. In reality, many children will need extensive help to catch up on lost learning and may need to focus on core subjects. Year 7 pupils starting at secondary school may need to recap their year 6 syllabus and some GCSE pupils may be encouraged to drop a subject so they can focus on maths and English. “We are aware that this may lead to concerns that the curriculum is being narrowed for these children,” Barton acknowledged, adding that it would only happen if it was in the best interests of the pupil.

The aim will be to return to the normal curriculum by the summer term in 2021 but child development and mental health experts have said the emphasis should be on wellbeing, friendships and play as children get back to school, rather than academic attainment. The government acknowledges that remote learning may continue to play a significant role in the case of local lockdowns and for individual pupils, but there remain concerns about access to computers and online resources among the most disadvantaged.

All exams to go ahead

The government wants all tests and exams to go ahead in the next year, including the phonics screening check in year 1, key stage 1 and 2 tests in primary, and the year 4 multiplication tables check. The new reception baseline assessment, which was due to be introduced for four-year-olds starting school this September, has been postponed. GCSEs and A-levels will go ahead next summer, though they may be delayed for a few weeks to allow extra teaching time, and some content may be reduced. Unions say the changes being proposed are minimal and that the government’s expectations are “unrealistic” given the amount of learning time lost.



Updated behaviour policies

The government guidance warns schools to prepare for more bad behaviour and acknowledges that some pupils will need additional support. The main message, however, is that there must be consequences for poor behaviour, particularly for breaches of new hygiene and distancing rules within schools, and that exclusion can be used as a last resort. Campaigners working with children who have special educational needs and disabilities (Send) are concerned there will be spike in exclusions among pupils with Send, who struggle with school in the best of circumstances and may be significantly affected by lockdown .

Parents can be fined for non-attendance

The government has said it will be mandatory for pupils to return to school from September, with fines for non-attendance as a last resort. Headteachers have opposed this, saying many parents will continue to have genuine fears about health and safety and the school should work with them rather than penalise them for absences. In reality, although the government is insisting on all pupils back in school at the start of the next academic year, headteachers will be allowed to use their discretion over fines and many will no doubt be sympathetic.

Hygiene, hand-washing and a small number of Covid-19 testing kits for schools

The government guidance includes the now familiar regime of regular hand-washing, “catch-it-bin-it-kill-it” messages and regular cleaning of spaces and equipment. Each school will be given a small supply of home testing kits and in the event of a Covid-19 outbreak, mobile testing units could be sent to administer tests to a class, year group or entire school if necessary. Where there are two or more confirmed cases in a two-week period, a larger number of pupils may have to self-isolate at home.

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