Global update: Return to school raises a vaccination dilemma

With Covid ever-present in the community, education leaders are faced with difficult choices if schools are to remain open.

Global update 

England

On Friday September 3, 2021 The Times main leader was titled: Back to School – it is vital that every pupil gets a full academic year of teaching and a chance to make up lost ground. Vaccinating them would help. 

The article commenced by pointing out that only Italy amongst European countries has lost more schooling to lockdown than the UK over the past two years and that this loss has had a considerable negative impact on pupils, especially the most disadvantaged. Thus, it argued it must be a priority that all children receive a full year of face-to-face teaching and additional provision is provided to all those behind to catch up. 

The article went on to suggest that for schools to remain open, there would have to be a careful balancing act between allowing for face-to-face teaching and reducing the restrictions imposed to contain the virus. Removing them all could well result in an upsurge of cases and a reimposition of them all which would result in a return to home schooling. Vaccinating all students is one option but this is not still open to scientific debate.

 The article concluded that this current situation needs to be set within the context of a concerning national picture in education which has been exposed by the commission being run by the paper. This has already discovered that “the system (in England) is not keeping pace with the changing workplace and new technology. Problems with A-levels and GCSEs go well beyond grade inflation. Mental illness was already soaring, with English children sadly amongst the unhappiest in the world. Businesses complain of skill shortages and of employees not able to read or write properly. Early years provision, which is key to reducing the attainment gap, too often amounts to little more than childcare.”

The vulnerability of this situation was soon made evident as returning students in Northern Ireland and Scotland were partially blamed for a surge in cases in both these countries. So, as our table from the BBC shows, we are not out of the woods yet. 

The day-to-day experience of our correspondents mirrors these concerns. Parents of teenage pupils are unsure if they should take them to be vaccinated and an increasing number of parents and students who have received both doses of the vaccine are now catching Covid.  Fortunately this is not usually resulting in hospitalisation, but still serves as a harsh reminder that the virus is still active in our midst.  

Students returning for their last year of secondary school are uncertain of how they will be examined at the end of their courses or how they will make up for lost time.  Though their schools are doing everything possible to bridge the gap, they are conscious that they have lost more than a year of real schooling, which could well impact negatively on their performance next June. 

However, all is not gloom and doom.  Staff are enjoying the experience again of being part of a purposeful team working in a safe environment and those students who have been newly appointed as prefects have donned their badges, done up their ties and set out optimistically to see if they can have any impact on the behaviours of their peers. 

One of the young people we know well has just successfully completed his GCSE and is about to take A levels. Unfortunately for him, old habits die hard and I found myself reverting to head teacher mode and telling him: 

“In my experience, the most important thing in this first term is that you produce at least one piece of work at the grade you are expected to get.  If you don’t, the chances of doing so later are considerably reduced. If you do, you will have shown you can do it once so you can do it again. Whatever happens, if you are struggling, speak to your teacher so at least you can understand exactly what is required.

Coming off the back of two years of a Covid-interrupted education, we hope he will heed our advice. He and his new classmates will probably be less prepared than students who have taken the course in previous years. So he could be in for a bumpy ride.  

Sweden

While recovering from an accident on his trail bike, Mats Rosenquist, CEO of Successful Schools Sweden, told us that for the autumn term 2021, schools are expected to be open for all levels of education. This has been proclaimed by the authorities, including the Swedish equivalent of the DFE. However, with growing numbers of young people and kids with Covid this means that:

– A few schools have already three weeks into the new school year had to close parts or the whole school.

– Higher education is still online. Some universities have informed their students that they will be online until November while universities in some regions have a plan for opening up schools by midterm.

– Teacher unions continue to focus on the safety of their members.

– As in the UK, there is a debate currently about the vaccination of pupils aged 12 years or over.  

Amongst all of this, our campaign to support the improvement of teaching and learning in Sweden was supported by the School Inspection Authority which published a new report about 20 schools with very low student outcomes over the past ten years and for the first time they point at a new finding – there is very little focus on the activities to improve what is “close to the teaching”.

We wish Mats a speedy recovery.

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This concludes our global update for the start of the autumn term 2021. We hope it is a successful one for all of our readers and contributors.

Take care and stay safe 

George