education

English school leaders despair at soft line on Covid tests and masks


Headteachers fear that the reopening of England’s schools could be undermined because parents will not consent to Covid testing for their children and because guidance on the wearing of face masks in classes is unenforceable.

The warnings came after a slew of education announcements from the government, culminating in a flurry of guidance on summer assessments that will pile pressure on already overstretched teachers.

Announcing its plans this week for a full reopening of schools on 8 March, the government promised a series of measures designed to enhance Covid safety, including twice-weekly testing for secondary pupils and a recommendation to wear face coverings in classrooms.

However, school leaders complained to the Guardian that the message was undermined when the school standards minister, Nick Gibb, admitted in television interviews on Thursday that neither were compulsory and it was up to parents to decide.

“I despair really,” said Alan Brookes, the executive head of Fulston Manor school in Sittingbourne, Kent.

He said letters had been sent out earlier this year requesting parental consent for regular Covid testing using rapid lateral flow tests, and uptake had been low, with consent in some schools in Kent running at 35%-40%. “We are beginning to get parents saying, ‘If it’s not compulsory, what’s the point?’” said Brookes.

On the confusion surrounding the wearing of masks in classrooms, he added: “In some ways it’s simpler when people say, ‘That’s how it is, that’s what you’ve got to do.’ It will be incredibly challenging for all teachers to hold a line on that now.”

Jules White, the head at Tanbridge House school in Horsham, West Sussex, described Gibb’s intervention as “pretty unhelpful”. Having written to parents on Monday saying it would be mandatory for pupils to wear face coverings in classrooms, he was forced to revise his guidance.

White also expressed scepticism about testing. “I think it will be difficult. What happens if 10%, 20%, 30% of children decide they are not going to do the test? They can all still come in the next day. Practically, we know the tests are only moderately reliable. It’s a huge amount of time, resource and energy for something that’s flawed.”

A pupil’s first three tests have to be carried out in school over a two-week period, after which pupils will take testing kits home. One school leader pictured the streets around his school littered with discarded tests.

Armies of local volunteers, teaching assistants, kitchen workers, office staff and retired teachers have been roped in to help administer the tests. Many pupils are being called in next week to begin the testing programme early to ensure that face-to-face to teaching resumes as early as possible.

There are fears too that disenchanted older students, especially those in year 11 with no exams to prepare for, will not return. Sammy Wright, the vice-principal of Southmoor Academy in Sunderland, said: “For students who did not engage before and have totally switched off now it’s going to be quite hard to get them to think school’s a place for them.”

School and college leaders told the Guardian that their staff would face increasing demands on their time to award A-levels and GCSE grades, with teacher assessment replacing in-person exams for pupils in England after exams were cancelled by the government earlier this year.

Teachers will be expected to collect material for making awards to each student, using previous work and mock exam results as well as all future work until the submission deadline on 18 June.

The Department for Education and Ofqual, the exam regulator, on Thursday issued the first guidance to schools on how the process would work, although Ofqual has yet to release technical details, including how schools are to weigh evidence of pupils’ work.

Under the new system, grade inflation and quality assurance will be policed by the examination boards, AQA, OCR and Pearson Edexel, in training materials and guidance issued to teachers and by investigating schools and colleges making unusual awards.

The Royal Statistical Society, which was highly critical of Ofqual’s efforts last year to issue grades using an algorithm, criticised the government’s latest plans as vague and called for more transparency in the use of historical data.

“While a system of teacher-awarded grades will help avoid some of last year’s issues around the awarding of qualifications, we need to see more detail,” said Sharon Witherspoon, the society’s vice-president for education and statistical literacy. “We understand that schools will be provided with results from previous years as a guide, but there is no information on how teachers should – or even could – use these data.

“The process of maintaining external quality assurance is even less clear. If exam centres are to be reviewed based on both random sample and risk, it suggests historical results will play a part. We would like to see transparency from exam boards about the sorts of changes from historical patterns that might trigger an external quality check in the next stage of guidance.”

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, announcing the plans for teacher assessments to parliament, said: “Exam boards will be issuing grade descriptions to help make sure grades are fair and consistent. These will be broadly pegged to performance standards from previous years, so that teachers and students are clear what is expected at each grade.”

But Williamson later told MPs that it was not possible to peg this year’s awards to those of previous years “because, sadly, as a result of doing that, it would probably entail some form of algorithm”.

A direction from Williamson to Ofqual revealed that students will be shown the evidence used by teachers to determine their grades before the school or college submits its final grade.

Simon Lebus, Ofqual’s interim chief regulator, warned in his response to Williamson that “outcomes may this year look different from previous years”.

Lebus said teachers would be asked to “take account of the way in which the pandemic has disrupted teaching in their school or college. Teachers will not be asked to make individual grading judgments which require them to imagine the pandemic had not happened.”



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