Thank you for your email regarding Kingslea and Heron Way Primary Schools.
What is clear from all the emails I have received on this subject is how deeply supportive those who have contacted me are of both schools and how impressed they have been with the quality of teaching and support the schools have provided during lockdown.
I was first made aware of this issue on Thursday evening and spoke to both Heads early Friday morning. I subsequently spoke to West Sussex County Council.
As you will be aware the County Council is the body ultimately responsible for the schools.
The Department for Education (DfE) guidelines under which schools could be reopened state that in addition to provision for all vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers, the priority must be the return of Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 to the fullest educational experience possible (“eligible children should be offered a full time time place” and “Schools should not plan on the basis of a rota system either daily or weekly as they do not provide the consistency of education and care required for the youngest children who may require more support with remote education”).
The guidance is available in full at the link below:
The guidelines also state that there will be circumstances in which schools have to take their own practical decisions.
I understand there has been an ongoing dialogue between the County and the schools on this issue.
The schools have emphasised their desire to act in what they see as the best interests of all pupils and believe that they cannot for good reasons offer provision beyond part time for Reception and Year 1 and would prefer to have more children back part time on a rota than a smaller number of year groups plus vulnerable/key worker children at school full time.
I am neither an educationalist nor an expert on childhood development. I do however have great sympathy with the Heads who I appreciate are motivated by wishing to give as many children as possible a classroom experience before the end of term.
Given the nature of the disagreement between the schools and County I wrote to the DfE on Friday and have pushed hard for a rapid response given how short a period of time exists between now and the end of term.
While I am pleased to have secured a rapid response from the DfE I know parents of children who may have benefitted from the plan will be upset to hear that the DfE are clear that until full time provision is being offered to all Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 children, in addition to full time provision to vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers, schools should not extend provision to other year groups.
The schools currently provide full time provision to vulnerable/key worker children and Year 6 and part time to Reception and Year 1.
This existing provision would necessarily have to be reduced to enable a rota of all year groups coming through the school.
On pushing the point I understand that the DfE’s policy has been closely thought through. When it became clear that it would be impossible to return all pupils to primary school expert advice was sought and acted upon as to how the available spaces should be delivered.
The strong view was that what was most critical was to maximise classroom time for the very youngest children, who are least familiar with the classroom learning environment and may have found it most difficult to home-learn and who need to secure the educational foundations for their primary school experience. The DfE want to see full time provision being offered for Reception and Year 1 even if this means that (less vulnerable) pupils may have to be taught by someone who is not their usual teacher or in an unfamiliar classroom. In addition Year 6 was prioritised, given the need to maximise their ability to transition with as much confidence as possible. Vulnerable children and key workers’ children also need to be supported full time during the pandemic.
The policy based on an educational rationale also meant fewer pupils coming through on large scale rotas, which made the DfE’s approach consistent with Public Health England advice.
That was why the DfE made clear that priority had to be given to returning these pupils full time before others. I appreciate why some may feel this appears “unfair” but it is driven by scientific advice.
There are circumstances in which Heads have to make practical decisions, as outlined in the guidance. What the DfE have in mind, for example, is circumstances under which despite full time provision being offered, pupils are not being sent back by parents - thereby creating spare classroom and staffing capacity. (This is clearly not the case with these schools. Given the work of the Heads and staff there is a 90-95 per cent take-up in Year 6 and over 80 per cent take up in Reception and Year 1, very significantly ahead of national return levels.) Similarly some schools on size grounds (classrooms/pupils) may be able to provide full time provision to all eligible pupils and still have available space and staff which they must decide how best to utilise.
Having been briefed on the issue on Friday I was determined to get a definitive answer as quickly as possible. I am sorry that parents and pupils had geared up for a wider return today and I understand why this was so exciting. I also have sympathy with the Heads and staff who have by all accounts done a tremendous job over lockdown, the very high rates of pupils returning speaks volumes. I also have no doubt that the Heads’ plans were subjected to the utmost rigour regarding the safety of the children and staff.
However it is the DfE that in these extremely difficult circumstances has to determine school policy and County is responsible for its schools.
We are all extremely aware of the toll this dreadful pandemic is taking on pupils and parents and grateful for the huge work and commitment being shown by local schools and their staff. Everyone shares the same determination to get all pupils back to school, safely, as soon as possible.
MP for Horsham