"Desperate to go back to school" - education leaders on plans to reopen schools in Leeds next term

Education leaders across the city say it is the right time to go back into the classroom as schools prepare for the new term.

By Emma Ryan
Saturday, 22nd August 2020, 6:00 am

After months of home-schooling and video calls, filing essays via facebook and teachers dropping off paper and pens at pupils homes in an attempt to keep up with the curriculum, kids will head back to school next month for a "new normal" approach to schooling.

The Department for Education has issued dozens of pages of guidance to schools across the country which details hand-sanitiser on school buses, how to move pupils from one classroom to another, arrangements for school trips, how much uniform is needed and what happens with regards playing musical instruments.

Coun Peter Gruen, chair of the GORSE Academy Trust, said he believed it was the right time for children to go back to school but appealed to the government to stop changing guidelines at the last minute as it was undermining work that schools had done, creating anxiety and uncertainty among parents.

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Preparing for a new normal when schools reopen in Leeds next month.

He told the Yorkshire Evening Post: "I say that because when we tried to get primary schools back we had put an enormous amount of work in and the idea of bubbles came up and we all had to re-think. Because the guidance was changing it meant that parents were less certain, it raised uncertainty in their minds.

"I know from the contacts and thousands of phone calls that have been made to parents, most of them are desperate to get kids back to school - and children are desperate to get back. I don't want to be part of letting children down and we are doing everything we can to ensure they get back safely, but the time is right."

His education colleague, Coun Jonathan Pryor, executive member for Learning, Skills and Employment at Leeds City Council said that the authority had been planning to re-open from the first day of closure.

He said: "There has been a huge amount of work, our role has been to focus the schools to do what they need. We have been thinking about reopening since the first day that they closed. It was always going to be a slow process. We have said from the start that all schools are different and need their own individual risk assessments. We have made sure that all headteachers have had regular calls with officers and support - ultimately they know their schools and their kids best."

Simon McCarthy, executive principal for primary education at GORSE Trust, Leeds.

The government has also said it will pay £1bn towards resources to help make up for lost teaching time; £650m in one off grants to state-funded primary, secondary and special schools and a £350m tutoring programme for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children.

Aside from the guidelines, which also have led to staggered start and finish times to some school days, forward facing desk arrangements, extra school entrances being created and sinks for hand-washing before coming into the buildings being installed - the main focus, even before education, is the mental health and well-being of pupils - at both primary and secondary levels.

Simon McCarthy is the executive principal for primary education for GORSE and said the trust's schools will be going through an emotional checklist with every child.

It is a continuation of work that has gone on since lockdown to keep in touch with vulnerable and disadvantaged children. Kindles were purchased for some children that didn't have access to the internet to do school work at home and in other cases, teachers and safe-guarding teams visited kids at home taking paper, colours and scissors - anything they needed so they could do some form of learning activity.

He said: "We need to make sure they are mentally well and prepared to start learning. God knows what has happened to them throughout this time. We will do an emotional checklist with every child and if we have not got a councillor in that school we have a connection with Place to Be, a national counselling service. That will be the first thing we focus on when they get back."

When it comes to catching up on the curriculum, there will be a gap that has widened more for some pupils than others and this is where teaching skills and standards have never been more important - despite GORSE's speciality being turning around the fortunes of struggling schools.

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Mr McCarthy added: "Personally I think it is the right time for children to be coming back. It is not just education that they have missed. It is social and emotional things they have missed out on.

"They can catch up with the right teaching and intervention. Right across the Leeds city region are exceptional teachers. We have taken over schools that have been inadequate and got them to where children have caught up and caught up quickly, there are other schools in Leeds that have done the same thing.

"As long as teaching is exceptional and the curriculum is well planned, the needs of children and the most vulnerable with the widest gaps are identified quickly, I do believe that we can get them back on track. It is now our job as teachers to make sure that these children don't leave our care disadvantaged or with any doors closed.

"Our teachers are desperate to get back. Of course it is not going to be normal, it is a new normal. Children get one chance in primary school and we can't get it wrong."

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Thank you

Laura Collins