“We need fewer pupils in our schools” - Calderdale headteachers voice their concerns over attendance levels during lockdown

Headteachers in Calderdale say the government need to go back to the drawing board over how many pupils are attending school during knockdown.

By Tom Scargill
Thursday, 21st January 2021, 9:18 am

Children with at least one parent classified as a key worker are allowed to remain in school.

Workers in health and social care, education and childcare, key public services, local and national government, food and other necessary goods, public safety and national security, utilities, communication and financial services and transport are all classed as key workers.

But school leaders in Calderdale say this list should be revised so that fewer children are attending schools.

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Mungo Sheppard with pupils at Ash Green Community Primary School, Mixenden

Mungo Sheppard, headteacher at Ash Green Primary School, said: “We’ve got just short of 500 children at the school and we’ve been averaging about 110 children per day.

“Of those 110, 25 are classed as vulnerable, for whom it’s safer to be in school.

“The big issue is about children of principal or critical workers, of whom we have about 85.

“We had about 15-20 children in school altogether during the first lockdown, which is a huge hike.

Calderdale primary schools who have been forced to take in large 'bubbles' of children because parents don't have access to computers/internet at home or the children are classed as vulnerable. Pictured is teacher Thomas Wood with children at Parkinson Lane Primary School, Halifax

“There’s been a huge lack of clarity and forward-planning from the Government, knee-jerk decisions, after the event.

“The only way schools can function in a safe way during the pandemic is for large parts of the rest of society to be closed down, so if households aren’t going other places than work and home, the fine, you can see that schools work.

“But schools were brought back into a relative period of freedom.

“For October half-term, my take on it was to shut everything down for three weeks.

Calderdale primary schools who have been forced to take in large 'bubbles' of children because parents don't have access to computers/internet at home or the children are classed as vulnerable. Pictured is teacher Khansa Ali, with a child at Parkinson Lane Primary School, Halifax

“Towards Christmas, school leaders across the country were saying let’s look at an earlier finish and a later return.

“In Scotland, both parents have to be critical workers, or the parent in a single-parent family, and there’s a narrower list of critical roles.

“Only by doing that can you let people know what the criteria is. If they criteria’s robust, people may complain, but they have to go with it.

“If it’s a list of 12 jobs instead of 100 jobs, and it’s all parents in the household, then you’d have had more people at home, fewer transmissions, and you would have to look at how you support families at home more.

“What’s happening at the moment is massively undermining the message of stay safe, stay at home - unless you’re three, unless you haven’t got a laptop, unless your mum or dad’s in one of these jobs or a job a little bit like it.

“How can that chime with the overarching message? It can’t.

“How can you have a stay at home and save lives strap line and then have a school, in Halifax, that has 258 kids in?”

Gugsy Ahmed, headteacher at Parkinson Lane School, said: “We’ve got about 90 pupils in school this week and one of the things we’ve got to remember is the infection is still about, this new variant is about.

“I’ve shut a bubble last week because somebody was infected within the bubble, I have a child in a year one bubble who has shown signs of Covid, we asked the parents to take them for a test but we’ve got to understand people’s circumstances, parents are reluctant to take their child for a test because it means they then can’t go to work because they’ve got to isolate.

“The other side of it is if they’re asymptomatic and they’re carrying the virus, they’re then carrying it out into the community.

“We really have got to rely on people looking out for other people.

“Within our parent group, we have a small minority who are not wanting to take responsibility for their children.

“I’m sure there’s a small minority in every school that are not taking the advice to stay at home wherever possible, to educate their children at home.

“The online learning my staff are putting up is absolutely superb and done in a very creative way, it’s differentiated for the children.

“We ran ICT classes for parents before lockdown.”I think there is an abdication of responsibility from a small minority.”

Mr Ahmed said 33 staff at the school have had the virus since September.

“I think the Government are sending mixed messages,” he said.

“It’s the first time in 30-odd years that I’ve felt like a child-minder and not an educationalist.

“I put that down to the politicians not knowing about what’s happening in schools and how the schools work.

“You’re shutting down, moving from face-to-face to online learning, but keeping nurseries open.

“That doesn’t make any sense.

“And the u-turns have exacerbated the amount of work that headteachers and teachers have got, they don’t know whether they’re coming or going.

Another issue that appears to be adding to the numbers of pupils still attending schools is some families not having laptops or computers with which to undertake home learning.

“We’ve provided laptops and iPads wherever we can,” said Mr Ahmed, “the difficulty we’ve got is lots of our families are quite large families and where they have family devices, they’re perhaps not going to have one for all the children, so we’re constantly having to reassess our timetable and make the online registration at different times so the older children aren’t hogging the hardware.”

Mr Sheppard said: “We’ve got a lot of larger families sharing a device, and some families without devices.

“There are many schools who were promised laptops and they haven’t arrived.

“The Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, said if you haven’t got a laptop, you should go to school.

“So the Prime Minister is saying we must all stay at home to save lives but the Education Minister says go to school if you don’t have a computer.

“We’ve been able to sort computers and technology for our pupils, supported by the local authority, but you get some families who say ‘they can’t all get on with the work they’re doing and I’d like them to come to school’.

“I know there are lots of schools waiting on laptops so families cannot access the learning.”

In a statement, the Calderdale branch of the National Education Union said: “Teachers are concerned that the number of children attending some schools is too high, with more children going to school now than during lockdown one.

“We need fewer children in schools, not more, to protect the community and slow the transmission of the new variant of COVID.

“The local authority have appealed to parents who are critical workers to only send their children to school as a last resort. All children should be at home if possible. If numbers do not decrease, schools may need to prioritise which children can attend.

“The NEU welcomes local Public Health advice which states that there should be a distance of 2m between all children. Although young children find it difficult to adhere to social distancing, this will allow classrooms to have enough space for this to be possible, and prevent overcrowding.

“There is now a local scheme working to supplement the number of devices sent to schools for eligible pupils to facilitate distance learning. The DfE and Gavin Williamson have consistently failed to deliver on this and have let down too many children.

“Calderdale NEU appreciates the support being given to schools and their communities by the local authority during these challenging times.”

Calderdale Council’s Cabinet Member for Children and Young People’s Services, Coun Adam Wilkinson, said: “Anywhere where groups of people come together – such as schools – brings with it an increased risk of COVID transmission. This risk is heightened with the presence of the new variant, which is unfortunately much more contagious. As such, it’s important that we minimise the number of pupils attending our schools - they are currently only open for only the children of key workers and vulnerable children. For everyone’s safety we continue to urge parents to only send their children to school if it is absolutely necessary.

“The numbers of children currently attending school is varied across the borough, with many schools accommodating very few children. In secondary schools the average attendance is currently 5%; in primary schools across the borough the average attendance is 25 per cent. We continue to work with schools to ensure they have safe operating levels, which means that in some cases the numbers able to attend are reduced.

“It’s also important that young people have access to technology that helps them stay connected with their teachers, social workers and friends.  The Council is pressing the Government to provide laptops and tablets as quickly as possible under the national scheme. To help Calderdale families who don’t have access to this vital technology, the Council, the Community Foundation for Calderdale, the Valley Learning Partnership and the Calderdale Partnership School Improvement Board have started fundraising to provide free equipment to the families most in need. To find out more about the Laptops for Learning Appeal and to donate, visit  https://localgiving.org/charity/cffc/project/laptopforlearners/.

“We know it can be difficult juggling childcare, home schooling and working, but by supporting your child to learn from home, you will be protecting your family, protecting school staff and protecting the people of Calderdale.”

Halifax MP Holly Lynch said: “Having written to all schools in Halifax, teachers are clear that far more pupils are attending than in previous lockdowns, as the definition of ‘key worker’ has been expanded. Some schools have had over 50% of their pupils in classrooms, which increases the chance of an outbreak and impacts on the overall infection rates in the community.

“Calderdale Council has been clear with parents that sending children to school should be a last resort, even for key workers, and I support this position.

“We have also seen some pupils needing to attend school because they do not have access to an IT device or broadband in the home.

“I have been pushing the government to deliver the devices that our schools desperately need and have been pleased to see the council, Community Foundation and other partners coming together to launch the Laptops for Learning Appeal which will help local disadvantaged pupils to access learning remotely.

“Whilst this work is commendable, we should not be reliant on charity in order for our children to be able to access a decent education which is a point I made to the Education Secretary in this weeks debate.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “If critical workers can work from home and look after their children at the same time then they should do so.
“Otherwise, schools are open to the children of critical workers.

“We expect schools to work with families to ensure all critical worker children are given access to a place if this is required, to enable them to provide vital services.

“We encourage all vulnerable children to attend.

“The protective measures that schools have been following throughout the autumn terms remain in place to help protect staff and students, while the national lockdown helps reduce transmission in the wider community.”

On the issue of pupils not having access to laptops, the spokesperson said the government have now delivered over three quarters of a million devices to children and young people.

The spokesperson said over £400 million has been invested in supporting disadvantaged children and young people who need the most help with access to technology through the pandemic.

The spokesperson also said their devices programme, which has been distributing laptops and tablets since May last year, goes hand in hand with the government’s work with the UK’s leading mobile network operators, enabling schools to request free uplifts in data for disadvantaged families.