As part of the phased approach to easing COVID-19 restrictions, the Government plans to reopen schools on 1 June for Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils. Dr Catherine Foley, Associate Professor in the Institute of Education asks that we listen to the concerns of all staff working in schools and discusses the considerable challenges they will face.

Over the last few weeks there has been an onslaught on teachers from some quarters of the press. Head teachers, teachers and all who work in school deserve our respect and support, and most of all for us to listen to their professional voice.  

What schools have achieved so far has been phenomenal. Almost overnight head teachers transformed their schools into sanctuaries of care and education for key worker and vulnerable children.  Rotas have been set up, adapted, and shared to provide continuity whilst keeping children and staff safe. They have been providing high-quality home schooling, managing the chaos of the free school meal system, taking home learning packs, checking on vulnerable children. A frustration of the toxic debate around whether schools should re-open is that they never really closed. Yet there are many unanswered questions about moving to the next stage.  

Of course teachers are desperate to see their classes again – they went into the profession to work with children, not to post materials to google classroom or talk through homework via Zoom. They are highly skilled professionals and there is no substitute for face-to-face teaching. However, they face many questions and dilemmas over the next few weeks. Anyone who is suggesting that this is simple is misguided and ill-informed. It is easy to declare that class sizes will be capped at 15. It is harder to model how 15 children plus their teacher fit into a standard classroom with the kind of distancing that is being deemed safe for every other profession. And it is impossible to explain how, given that in most primary schools in normal circumstances every classroom is full to the brim, head teachers will be able to double the classrooms and teachers that they can use to accommodate this ‘cap’ as we move towards the aspiration of all children returning before the summer.  

As for the 1st June, bringing back some children into school has some merit, but head teachers need to be able to manage this as best for their circumstances. For example, for a head teacher of an infant school to be told that they have to take in both Reception and Year 1 raises impossible questions – just one of which is the fact that there are insufficient classrooms and staff to follow the guidance of no more than 15 children per classroom. And if they are teaching Reception and Year 1, who is teaching the older children of key workers and vulnerable families? Who is providing the home-schooling which has been of such high quality in our partner schools? Teachers worry that the quality and support they can provide will go down as they are stretched in ways that are unproven and unsafe.  

At the moment, children will be returning to an unfamiliar and frightening environment. Schools work because in them children laugh, play, talk, read, handle equipment, explore, make, listen. Most of these things will be constrained by the need to socially distance – try explaining that to a four year-old.  

Headteachers have the experience and expertise to manage this process, but they need time, space and support to make it work for their school. They should be supported by the whole community and defended by ministers in government. Which leads me to one more question. The Chamber of the House of Commons has just under 440 seats, yet has been set up to operate with just 50 MPs at a time. A head teacher of a one-form intake school, with seven classes of 30 children, has been told that they should re-open for three classes or 90 children on 1st June, and potentially for all 210 over the next few weeks, without extended hours or rota systems. Perhaps we should fill the Chamber with the same number of children and staff, without PPE, and see whether ministers remain as convinced that it is safe to operate.  

In this country we have a teaching profession to be proud of. Rather than dismissing their fears and concerns as squabbles, let’s hear them, respect them, and keep them safe to do what they do best – looking after the learning, development and safety of all our children.