by Douglas Silas, specialist SEN solicitor
Here is my update for this week.
This week I am setting out only part of the text of this week’s update for those of you reading this update by email, to try to make it a bit easier for people to read things and only click on links which are of interest to them.
(Again, anyone receiving this update through Social Media will be reading the full update as normal after clicking on the link).
I hope that this helps people again.
1. What has happened this week?
It’s no surprise if you have already guessed from the title of this week’s update, what the issue was again this week in SEN news – primary schools going back, then not going back!
I can do no better than quote an article from the BBC’s website early in the week entitled: “Plan dropped for all primary pupils back in school”, which said:
“The plan for all primary school years in England to go back to school before the end of term is to be dropped by the government.
There had been an aim for all primary pupils to spend four weeks in school before the summer break.
But it is no longer thought to be feasible and instead schools will be given "flexibility" over whether or not to admit more pupils.
Head teachers' leaders said it had never been a practical possibility.
It comes after Health Secretary Matt Hancock conceded at Monday's Downing Street briefing that secondary schools in England may not fully reopen until September "at the earliest".
Primary pupils in England in Reception, Year 1 and 6 began to return to school last week - and figures published by the Department for England have shown how many attended, based on 4 June.
It shows that about three quarters of those who could have returned to school were still at home - reflecting that almost half of schools were not open for extra pupils.
- 52% of primary schools opened for extra pupils
- 11% of primary pupils were in school - about a quarter of those year groups who could have gone back
- 659,000 children were in all schools, including children of key workers, almost 7% who would normally attend, up from 2.6% before half term
Prime Minister Boris Johnson will chair a cabinet meeting later to discuss the next steps to ease lockdown restrictions, before Education Secretary Gavin Williamson delivers a statement to the House of Commons on the reopening of schools.
There are separate rules for managing the threat of coronavirus in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Children in England began returning to primary schools in a phased process last week, with Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils heading back first.
Mr Williamson will give an indication later of how many more pupils in England have returned, but he is also expected to say that primary schools will no longer have to prepare for the return of all pupils, as previously proposed by the government.
The "pressure" to get ready will be removed, with heads and governors being free to decide whether they can bring in more classes.
Today's announcement is expected to make formal what head teachers and governors in England have been saying for some time.
It's not possible to massively increase the space each class needs to meet social distancing rules, and bring everyone back.
There's not enough room.
While Number 10 and the education secretary pushed on with the plans, they lost the support of some groups of parents, people working in schools and teaching unions.
There are the concerns that having more pupils in schools will contribute to an increase in Covid-19 infections, both among pupils and staff and in their communities, and the inconclusiveness of the scientific evidence on this.
Balanced against this are also the very real fears of parents, about how on earth they are going to manage with their youngsters at home for another two or three months - minimum - let alone keep up to date with their educational needs.
There are growing voices for the government to start to think more strategically and more creatively. A strategic national plan is being called for, one that realises the scale of the problem and matches the scale of the support the economy has seen.
The announcement means that many children in these other year groups will not be back in school until September or even after.
Care minister Helen Whately told BBC Breakfast that ministers "don't want to take risks that might increase the infection rates", but recognise that being out of school is "particularly a problem" for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and that the education gap "can widen".
Children's commissioner for England Anne Longfield told the programme that the prospect of secondary school pupils not returning until beyond September was "deeply worrying".
"It's a disruption we've not seen since the Second World War," she said.
She added that "the education divide is broadening" and "almost a decade of catching up on that education gap may well be lost".
She also called children's education to be made the number one priority in government, adding that otherwise there was a risk that "childhood is just going to be furloughed for months."
Commons Education Committee chairman Robert Halfon called for a national strategic plan to get schools open as soon as possible. He also warned that with schools remaining closed the majority of pupils would lose 40% of their time in class this year.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I think we're a strange country in which we turn a blind eye to mass demonstrations all over in every city, we campaign for pubs and cafes to open and yet we say to open schools before September is too risky when all the evidence... suggests otherwise."
Mr Halfon also responded to concerns raised by a teacher on BBC Radio 5 live about schools having to fund supply teachers from their own budgets. "If schools need extra funding in order to make sure their classrooms are social distancing, then government should provide that funding," he said.
One mother told the Today programme that she was "unsurprised" but "incredibly disappointed" by the news.
"I feel really sad for my son. I've got one son in year two and another one in reception.
"My child in reception [has] gone back, albeit only four days a week, every other week.
"And my older son, who is just about to turn seven, is desperate to go back, can't understand, thinks it's so unfair - which it is."
But another mother, with two children aged eight and six, disagreed.
"I'm actually relieved if schools don't go back until September because I think it's too soon.
"They don't socially distance at that age. I don't think there's enough protective equipment available in school."
Head teachers had warned several weeks ago that it was not a realistic possibility to accommodate all primary year groups at the same time, with social distancing limiting their capacity.
Class sizes are now only 15 pupils or less - so if each class occupied two classrooms, school leaders argued that they would have no space for all year groups to return.
"The 'ambition' to bring back all primary year groups for a month before the end of the summer term was a case of the government over-promising something that wasn't deliverable," said Geoff Barton, leader of the ASCL head teachers' union.
"It isn't possible to do that while maintaining small class sizes and social bubbles," he said.
Paul Whiteman, of the National Association of Head Teachers, said "we're pleased to see the government will not force the impossible" and that the plan had too many "practical barriers".
Ian Robinson, chief executive of the Oak Partnership Trust, which runs primary schools and a special school in Somerset, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the announcement shows ministers "are listening to the profession".
Schools have remained open throughout the lockdown for children of key workers and vulnerable children.
But last Monday primary schools began the process of inviting back another two million children across three year groups.
Secondary pupils in Years 10 and 12 are to begin returning for some sessions in school from 15 June.
It is thought that primary pupil numbers have been increasing as parents have become more confident - but there have also been local concerns about different regional rates of infection.
Teachers' unions have warned that it is too early to return to school - and some local authorities have delayed a return in their areas.
But the Department for Education has argued that children need to get back to lessons - and that safety has been "paramount" in the plans to bring back more pupils.
Schools in Wales will reopen from 29 June to all age groups for limited periods during the week, while Scottish schools are to reopen at the start of the autumn term on 11 August, with some continued home-learning.
Some Northern Irish pupils preparing for exams and those about to move to post-primary schools will go back in late August, with a phased return for the rest in September.”
A couple of days later, the BBC’s website published another article entitled: “Summer catch-up plan for England's schools pledged”, which said:
“An extended catch-up plan for England's schools is to be launched for the summer and beyond, to help pupils get back on track amid school shutdowns.
The PM's spokesman said the plans would involve all pupils, not just those from poor backgrounds who are expected to fare worse during closures.
It comes after the education secretary ditched plans for all primary pupils to return to school before the break.
PM Boris Johnson has been accused of "flailing around" over schools.
On Wednesday, Labour leader Keir Starmer called for a national recovery plan for schools, saying the current plan to get pupils back to classrooms were "lying in tatters".
Mr Johnson said at Wednesday's daily briefing that the government would be doing "a huge amount of catch up for pupils over the summer".
Concerns have been raised about the potential for a lost generation of learners, whose education will have been interrupted for at least six months even if schools return as now planned in September.
The PM's spokesman said the aim remained to have all pupils back in school for the start of the academic year, but gave no details about how ministers intended to achieve this.
School capacity is severely restricted by guidelines on social distancing and separating out existing classes into smaller groups of up to 15 pupils from much larger class sizes.
When the spokesman was asked about increasing this capacity, by creating extra classrooms or using village halls for example, he said the government was "looking at exactly what might be required to get all children back".
The Scottish Government, which is bringing pupils back in staggered fashion from August, has said it will be working with local councils to seek out extra community spaces and empty offices to accommodate pupils, where necessary.
Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Layla Moran has called for a register to be drawn up in local areas to map out where spaces could be brought into school use.
There are few details of how the summer catch-up plans will work. A further announcement is expected next week.
It is not clear whether this catch-up work would be offered in school buildings or elsewhere, or whether teachers would be asked to staff the programme.
The general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, Paul Whiteman, said the plan was the latest in a long line of eye-catching announcements that would suffer from a lack of input from the teaching profession.
He said it was not credible to think academic catch up could be achieved over the summer, and warned that the impact of enforced isolation on young people was little understood but likely to be significant.
But he said support was clearly needed for pupils over the summer, and urged the government to fund a locally co-ordinated offer involving youth groups and charities.
The Children's Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, warned last week that there were just two weeks left to set such summer learning projects up.
And the House of Commons Education Committee chairman, Robert Halfon, has called for a Nightingale Hospital style plan to get schools back to capacity.
Meanwhile, the Welsh government has published new guidance on the measures schools should consider when reopening, including outside learning, teaching in small groups, and pupils eating at their desks.
Schools in Wales will reopen to all age groups from 29 June, but only a third of pupils will be in classes at any one time.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says Scottish schools will reopen from 11 August, but with some continued home learning.
In Northern Ireland, ministers have set a target date for some pupils to go back on 17 August, with a phased return for the rest in September.”
By the end of the week, another article appeared entitled: “How will secondary schools reopen safely?”, which said:
“As some Year 10 and Year 12 pupils in England prepare to go back to school on Monday, secondary head teachers are having to overcome an array of challenges.
Plans shared with the BBC suggest the arrangements will vary widely. More than 300 schools and colleges told us they were mainly offering between five and 30 hours of face-to-face teaching each week.
Some are making the return gradual, starting with pupils who are struggling the most, with many providing individual pastoral sessions to check on mental health.
The Sixth Form Colleges Association says schools and colleges should ensure that extending face-to-face teaching does not impact on support for pupils who are still at home.
At Ivybridge Community College on the southern slopes of Dartmoor in Devon, principal Rachel Hutchinson has been putting the final touches to plans for welcoming back just over a quarter of the college's 2,500 students.
The Year 10 and 12 pupils who will be doing their GCSEs and A-levels next year will return to a very different school from the one they last saw in March.
"Safety measures are key," says Mrs Hutchinson.
"We're working very much with social distancing measures... looking very much at the timetable and what we can do safely and sensibly."
But she's also determined to give them an "effective education".
Pupils arrive by school bus, public bus and train, some are dropped off, while others walk or cycle.
New mask-wearing and social distancing rules on public transport, plus a ban on sixth-formers car sharing, mean clear communication is key, she says.
Each school bus can now carry just seven students, which means that, while bringing back a quarter of the pupils is feasible, larger numbers might be impossible, she says.
How much face-to-face teaching will returning pupils get?
At Ivybridge, even these smaller numbers of students will have to be part-time to ensure safety.
It means only about 100 will be in at any one time, with only 10 in each class.
For Year 10s, there will be one full day of teaching each week, with 90 minutes each of maths, English and science.
The other subjects will continue to be taught remotely on the days pupils are at home.
"They'll still get their full curriculum," says Mrs Hutchinson.
The post-16 students will have seminar days to reduce movement around the site.
They'll get two full days of each A-level over the five weeks before the end of term, says Mrs Hutchinson.
"We think it's very viable, its do-able and it's really important for their education."
How will social distancing work?
There are 2m distancing markers along all the corridors and a one-way system.
Staff in high-vis jackets will monitor every entrance, there are hand-sanitising stations and lots of posters and banners to remind children not to crowd each other.
"It's going to be that supermarket feel - when you go to a supermarket for the first time with the trolley queues," she says.
With reduced numbers, it's manageable, she says, but increased numbers of students would present a challenge.
How will pupils cope with being back after so long?
"I'd like to think as a college we've been really strong on our pastoral care," says Mrs Hutchinson.
Tutors have had lots of email contact with students, with fun, remote activities like cake-baking to keep pupils engaged with the school community.
However, she recognises some will have fallen behind and so there is a recovery programme to help them catch up.
She says a key aim of returning to school is to ensure pupils' wellbeing and she will keep a particular eye out for socially disadvantaged children.
About 30 children have opted to take up the college's offer of one-to-one tutoring, with support available for families who have suffered bereavement or illness or are anxious, she says.
What about staff?
One of the most important aspects is "getting it right for my staff", she says.
"They are absolutely working round the clock to maintain communication, the pastoral welfare and wellbeing of the children, as well as checking in on the learning."
Some have their own health issues, many will be running busy households without childcare and may feel anxious about returning to face-to-face teaching.
"It's managing staff welfare and making sure that staff feel safe and are ready to come back to work," she says.
And all other pupils at the school?
Years 7, 8 and 9 will continue to be taught virtually and pupils in Years 11 and 13, whose exams were cancelled will still get support.
"It's keeping an eye on a number of schools really; our virtual school as well as the new school that's going to be returning.
"The exciting thing is, for the first time ever, children are saying they miss school," says Mrs Hutchinson.
What about September and summer schools?
Getting the college back to a "new normal for September," is another challenge.
It will be welcoming the new Year 7s, plus a huge group who have not been in school since March.
Mrs Hutchinson says that unless the distancing measures are amended, schools will have to run a blend of classroom lessons and virtual learning in September.
She believes the idea of schools opening over the summer, when staff have already been flat out since March is "quite controversial".
"The summer six weeks are going to be key for us to get ready for September," she argues - and many staff will have to work through to prepare.
"So to open for children in as well will be incredibly challenging," she says.
She hopes both children and teachers can take their normal summer holidays, ready for a new start, whatever form it will take.
Wales will begin opening schools on 29 June, with Scotland and Northern Ireland waiting until August.”
2. What does this mean?
It’s a real mess isn’t it…
The world is currently changing very rapidly.
On the one hand, it seems like we are progressing 10 years in 10 weeks regarding our working practices. However, on the other hand, I am also concerned that we may be regressing 10 years in 10 weeks in our educational practices!
I still think though we have to wait and see how things ultimately pan out, as it is still too early to be too definitive about anything.
3. Where can I find further information?
There isn't really much more that I can say again in this update now.
However, as I always like to do at the end of my updates, I would again remind you of the very useful resources and information provided on the following websites:
- Council for Disabled Children
- Special Needs Jungle
I would also highlight again the fact that you can now get digital copies of the magazines: SEN Magazine and Autism Eye which are both very helpful to any parents or professionals involved with children/young people with SEN.
Keep safe until next week.
With best wishes
P.S I understand that there are a number of educational or other useful resources now on the web - I would be very grateful if you could let me know of any that people are finding useful, so that I can direct others to them.
P.P.S. I also want to highlight again the fact that there are currently a lot of scams out there, both online and through texts/WhatsApps. Please be extremely careful and help yourself and others not to become victims. You can learn more at: www.FriendsAgainstScams.org.uk.