When attendance is optional

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Governing bodies have been working closely with their schools to find ways of interpreting the directives and guidance. This continues to be a challenge that each individual school must find its own solutions to. John Viner describes the experiences at his school as they welcome pupils back.

Summary

  • A Covid-19 Task Group was created that could help test out risk assessments.
  • Keeping track of attendance is now manual and the weekly return to the DfE is complex.
  • How all the children will be reintegrated in the school year is unclear and part-time attendance may be necessary.

For the last few months we have lived in a time of great educational uncertainty. As chair of governors of my local primary school, I have been very aware of the impact on the local community. When lockdown started at the end of March, it happened with a rapidity that left us wondering what we were going to do and how we were going to do it.

Suddenly busy colleagues with lively classes found themselves sitting at home and getting to grips with the new ways of teaching: Google Classroom, Zoom, Microsoft Teams and a plethora of web-based solutions. In the meantime, we had to keep our schools open for the children of key workers.

At our primary school, the headteacher carefully worked out a rota of staff who would take care of our key worker children so that we would be able to cope with the potential numbers. I called the school on the first day and we had 16 pupils out of our 400 roll, which was a little fewer than expected.

By the end of the next week we were getting slightly fewer still.  Parents, worried by the rapidly spreading virus, were largely keeping their children at home. Even key workers were making other arrangements. Although we agreed that we would close for Easter so that all staff could have a break, we were directed by the local authority to remain open. Throughout the holiday, our attendance fluctuated between 2 and 8, rising to somewhere between 8 and 16 when term started again.

Governing body

As a governing board, we quickly moved into virtual meetings. Ours is a reconstituted board where, finance aside, we operate governance without committee and I am fortunate to chair a group of proactive and involved governors who want to play a key role in supporting the school.

In response to the public health emergency, we established a small Covid-19 Task Group of leaders and governors, so that we could look in detail at the changing situation rapidly with delegated powers. It has been a journey into unchartered lands, mapped out by ever-changing government guidance and pressure from the local authority to comply.

Although we did not share a collective trust in the government’s assertion that ‘the science’ suggested it would be fine to re-open on 1 June, we felt that we had little choice.  Unlike an academy, where the decision lies with the Trust, re-opening a local authority school is an operational decision which is taken by school leaders, although they are expected to consult with governors. 

It is the headteacher’s responsibility to carry out any risk assessment, but governors need to test out risk assessments and policy amendments. Hence our Covid-19 Task Group. Under chair’s action, I signed the documents required by the local authority by 1 June, but they have gone back to the Task Group and will be ratified at the next governor meeting.

At the time of writing, I have just returned from a Task Group meeting where we reviewed the carefully planned and effective arrangements put in place by senior leaders and being implemented across the school.  We have looked at the arrangements for grouping pupils in ‘bubbles’, at the one-way routes around the school, and the complicated timetabling that enables bubbles to wash, toilet, break and eat by staggering their day. We also looked at attendance.

Attendance measures

Taking registers is no longer simple. With pupils scattered around the school, it is not possible to use the electronic registration system. Instead, manual registers are taken, which are then entered on the electronic record by our clerical team. However, for the leadership, registration is further complicated by making a weekly return to the local authority and an extraordinarily complex weekly return to the DfE.

The DfE narrative is clear. Pupils are expected to be in school if they are in the target year groups and, while it is politically too risky to demand parents to comply, the 1 June DfE update said this:

‘Education … settings are already open to priority groups. Now that we have made progress in reducing the transmission of coronavirus, we are encouraging all eligible children to attend – it is no longer necessary for parents of eligible children to keep them at home if they can.’

However, what frightens me as a governor is that we are supervising this phased return at a time when ‘reducing the transmission’ is not at all clear. In my area, the reinfection rate (the ‘R’ number), currently stands at between 0.6 and 0.9 – and 0.9 is a little too close to 1.0 for comfort.

If parents choose to keep their children at home, then we are not going to enforce attendance. We have authorised all absence until further notice. For this reason, we ask parents to tell us in advance if their child will be in the following week. Those parents whose child we were expecting but have not arrived will be telephoned on the first day of absence. Those whom we were not expecting will not be. However, our family liaison officer is working her way through a list of all families from whom we have not heard during lockdown.

That was the position as we re-opened. However, we are now looking at full re-opening, with an Education Secretary telling us to fine parents whose children do not attend. Our systems of bubbles, staggered timetables and one-way systems worked well and we have both a plan and PPE in place to care for any child that becomes unwell and needs personal care. There is no reason why the same principles should not apply as we look forward to welcoming back our existing pupils and embracing new starters.

Careful management, diligent use of the outdoor spaces and the cooperation of most parents meant that we were able to hold a well-attended Leavers’ Assembly on the field and enable most new children to at least visit the school.

We have a plan for re-opening in September. Our Covid-19 Task Group will continue to monitor the situation and we will do our best, with staggered arrivals and departures, to run a school where all pupils are safe and are learning. Above all, we are very aware of the need to safeguard the mental health and welfare of pupils who may be fearful of returning to a school from which they have been absent for several months. This is our priority. Unless we provide emotional security, we will not enable pupils to engage with the education they need.

We are far from a solution and, until the ‘R’ number shows that the virus is all but gone, attendance is likely to remain fragile.

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About Author

John Viner

John Viner has taught in both primary and secondary schools, with a long history of successful primary school leadership. He is now a full-time writer, inspector and adviser. jeviner@gmail.com

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