The Leaders Council – 29th Aug 2020

As schools in England and Wales brace themselves for the return of pupils on a full-time basis having worked hard to implement Covid-19 safety procedures, nursery schools, which adopt a much more hands-on approach with young children, are readying themselves for change.

For nursery schools, primary schools and secondary schools, all of which were forced to close their doors in March, it has been a turbulent few months as the UK has adjusted to life in lockdown.

“Turbulent” was the choice of words used by Mary Brosnan, owner and founder of the Storybook Montessori nursery school in Ascot, to describe her experience adjusting to the impact of the pandemic.

Speaking on the Leaders Council podcast, Brosnan described how her nursery school, which adheres to the Montessori approach to education, had closed its doors on March 20 with 83 per cent of its capacity fully occupied and could only admit 41 per cent of its maximum intake by the time the nursery could reopen on June 1.

Brosnan said: “We are immensely grateful for government schemes around business rates and indeed the furlough scheme which have helped us financially, and we have been able to plan our staffing needs in summer and into the autumn when occupancy will pick up.”

However, while nursery schools have operated in a detached manner to their primary and secondary counterparts, Brosnan predicts that changes will also come in the way her area of the sector must operate.

“I think there are aspects of how we work that will change. We are a Montessori nursery school, so our work is traditionally hands-on with children. In that respect, we have to be on site and teaching children under the early years and Montessori curricula in adherence with safety procedures, and operationally the way that parents drop their children off on-site will have to change to maintain physical distance. We have been trialling this since reopening and we do have a good relationship with parents, so fortunately that has been effective so far.”

Brosnan also foresees that use of technology will increase in Storybook Montessori’s day-to-day operations under the new normal, having been one of the positive elements to emerge from the lockdown period.

“We got used to using online tools like Zoom a lot during lockdown to continue with staff training and maintain communication at a distance, and that is something we will consider using going forward in various ways. Heightened awareness of technology is one of the real positives to come from lockdown.”

Some of the new safety procedures that primary and secondary schools will be adopting from next week when the autumn term commences include staggered lunchtimes, break-times and start times, as well as rigorous new cleaning routines.

General secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers [NAHT], Paul Whiteman, said that schools are ready to return and had been working hard to make premises safe, with 97 per cent of 4,000 heads of schools surveyed by the body saying that they will be opening their doors on-time at the beginning of term. The remaining three per cent will be bringing pupils back in a phased manner.

Nearly all schools have created designated ‘bubble’ groups of pupils, implemented a one-way system and installed additional hand-washing and sanitation stations.

The first week of term is being used by some schools as a transition week, comprising of inductions on the new daily procedures.

In the wake of a government u-turn on face masks in schools, Whiteman urged parents not to keep their children at home and allow them to return to school on time, saying: “Please do not let the very public political difficulties and argument cloud your confidence in schools.

“School leaders and their teams have continued to do all that has been asked of them. With co-operation and understanding between home and school, we can achieve the very best return possible despite the political noise.”

Whiteman has also called on the government to publish clear plans on how schools should be expected to respond if their area is affected by a local lockdown.

He said: “You don’t need a crystal ball to see that local restrictions will be a feature of the autumn and winter. We’ve already seen them happening in a few areas of the UK.

“All we’re asking the government to do is meet us halfway. We’ve done everything we can to get ready but we can’t have any more last minute plans.

“Last minute contingencies have caused chaos so far, but a credible, well understood set of alternatives for schools in the event of a lockdown will not only give us something to work with but will also help to reassure any families that are still nervous about coming back on day one.”

A separate survey of 7,000 teachers uncovered that over two-thirds wished to see increased mental health support for vulnerable pupils, and 71 per said that they did not think schools would be able to help all pupils catch up on the learning they have missed through lockdown without additional support, particularly for those pupils who have suffered from loss, mental health issues, or domestic abuse.