Confusion reigns in the classroom

A lot is going on within our collaborative communities at the moment, so to keep you informed of events, we shall dedicate the next two blog posts to the global update.  In this, the first, we report on Quebec and England and in the second we focus on Dubai, Jersey, Sweden and Wales. 

When I started out as a headteacher, a wise and more experienced colleague told me: “Enjoy your first month of the school year because your staff and pupils will all have their heads down establishing their routines. As a result they just want you to do your figurehead bit when required. So my advice to you is to keep out of their way. You will have enough to do later”. They were right.  Even Ofsted understood the situation and left you alone. 

How different it is now with more than 1,000,000 deaths and 35,000,00 cases of COVID-19 worldwide and a second wave being experienced in Europe and Canada. All school staff have returned to find themselves immediately re-immersed in the uncertainty that the pandemic has thrust upon their schools. Others have not taken any time off, so for them, it’s a continuation of the same.  While the arrival of the students has lifted the mood, it has also heightened the level of anxiety. 

Canada

Canada, and Quebec in particular, are experiencing a second wave of the virus.  In Quebec they have introduced a colour coding system. The Board is on amber/yellow at level 2, which represents early warning. As usual, the urban areas suffer the most, with Montreal in lockdown.  On the Board’s western boundary is Ontario, including the capital city Ottawa, where on Friday, the Ontario provincial government announced new restrictions, including limits of 100 people in restaurants and bars, and 50 people in events centres. They also announced that all testing centres would now be by appointment only, to prevent long lineups for testing, especially as the weather gets colder. That would mean closing some centres until Tuesday.

We spoke with Stewart Atkins, Director of Elementary Education at the Western Quebec School Board, who would at this point in the school year usually be working with his team of principals to evaluate their Ministry and Board exam results and adjust their school success plans and staff development programmes accordingly. However, with no public examinations last year and school populations in a state of flux as the virus continues to take its toll, making decisions about these plans and programmes have been deferred, so staff can attend to the demands of the present. 

The Board schools have had a number of additional issues to deal with.  Student numbers are fluctuating because of illness and the uptake of places at the virtual school has doubled as more students have become identified as vulnerable. The number of those  being taught at home has tripled as more parents elect to homeschool their children. Compared to the school population, the numbers involved are still relatively small, but as they increase, the school’s income is affected and has a potential knock-on effect on provision, adding to what is already a complex situation. 

Despite the potential gloom, Mike Dubeau, Director General, sees a number of opportunities to move the Board’s work on. Having had the projected change to the status of the English Schools’ Boards halted by the courts, a new set of board members have been elected to guide the professionals through these difficult times. The virtual school, under the leadership of George Singfield, Secretary General and Director of Corporate Services,  is refining the way the Board provides this style of education.  With so many students living in remote locations, the Board has a long tradition of providing virtual learning programmes. However, the present situation has brought them into sharp focus and they are making plans to ensure that when things return to normal, the lessons learnt are shared across the Board.

Mike said he was able to relate the present situation in Quebec with our recent blog where we recounted how we had, in the light of a national staff shortage in the late 1990s, looked internally to resolve our staffing issues. There is a major shortage of teachers throughout the Province and to overcome this situation, the Board has appointed a number of local non-teaching staff.  It has devised an induction programme using work from Olevi mirroring the highly successful Teacher Induction Programme (TIP).  He said that the analysis of the staff potential we had described made the Board realise that if they did the same, they could personalise their programme further. In addition, they would also consider the long-term commitment of the trainees to the profession.

England

In England, the number of cases is rising rapidly, new restrictions being or threatened to be introduced in most urban areas and the news over the weekend that more than 16,000 recent cases had been missed off the daily report and their contacts not informed, has heightened our sense of uncertainty.  This has led to a reporter for the BBC referring to us as living in a world of continual uncertainty.  With some areas going into lockdowns with no sign of coming out soon, a Mayor has compared the situation to being like living in the Eagles’ ‘Hotel California,’ where “you can check out anytime but you can never leave”  Closer to home, last week one University reported more than 700 cases amongst its students and a sixth of all secondary schools reported reduced attendance because groups of students had been sent home due to COVID.  

A significant number of teachers and school leaders are in a heated debate with the Government over the definition of what schools are expected to do and the content, assessment and timing of public exams. At a fundamental level, the Government wishes to formalise schools’ role in providing homeschooling for those students unable to attend school because of the virus. At the moment there is no statutory requirement to do so but many schools have, due to the circumstances they have found themselves in, taken on this role.  The formalisation of this role has been met with indignation by some and concern by many, especially the unions. 

The issue surrounding the nature of public examinations continues to rumble on. Now it is about next year’s exams. There have already been modifications to some exams and there is talk about extending the school year to provide enough time for students to catch up. There are also growing calls from the profession for the examination boards to make preparations for the possibility that if the situation deteriorates further, they might have to rely upon teacher assessments again.  

On the ground, the knock-on effect of these issues is manifold: some students and staff are staying home and self isolating longer than necessary because they cannot access a test or the results are delayed; dates for next year’s summer holidays are now uncertain; the class set an exam year student might find themselves in is of even more importance than normal because it could predict their exam results; and holding an 18th birthday celebration with some of your peers could trigger an outbreak of the virus which sends the whole year group home for a fortnight. On top of this, in a few mixed schools where subjects were taught in single-sex classes, students have returned to find that in order to meet the directives from the Department of Education they are now in mixed classes. We’ve also heard of one primary school where a quarantining teacher was forced to conduct a lesson over Zoom while the in-class teaching assistant maintained order among those sitting off-camera.  Finally, just add to this uncertainty and potentially fraught situation OFSTED are preparing to make one day visits to schools to evaluate their responses. 

Take care and stay safe

George