Click here for Mr Speight's interview published in the Brighton Journal (or read below)

Teachers have been heroic, don’t put them at risk by re-opening schools too soon
Angus Walker - Brighton Journal
8th May 2020

“I can’t emphasise enough how proud I am of all our teachers,” Principal of Brighton Aldridge Community Academy (BACA), Robert Speight, tells me. “The way they’ve adapted has been truly incredible.”

Up and down the country, teachers and other education workers have been getting to grips with delivering curriculums remotely, giving live video lessons, setting work online, emailing feedback, and sending activities to students’ homes. For many, this has posed significant challenges, requiring a creative approach to problem solving and no little resilience.

“Part of the difficulty was that everything happened so quickly with closure,” Speight says. “It was announced schools would be shutting for all but the children of key workers and then virtually the next day they closed. So there wasn’t much time to prepare.”

At BACA, staff have been working tirelessly to provide as comprehensive a programme as possible, one that caters for the different requirements of all students.

“We’ve been trying to replicate normality as closely as we possibly can. We’ve sent home paper work packs, and our virtual learning programme includes daily live lessons, online activities, small group tutorials, and even video assemblies. So far, parental feedback has generally been very positive.”

“We’ve got multiple families with limited IT resources, so this presents a challenge that we’ve done our very best to overcome. We’ve given out over 150 laptops and numerous internet dongles to students who need them. We’re in the fortunate position to be able to do that, and it’s important not to rush to compare schools’ responses too much, you’ve got to remember that some schools are better set up for something like this than others.”

As well as remote learning, BACA has also been doing incredible work to support the well-being of students and families during this difficult time.

“After closure, we had a big push to prioritise students’ mental health and well-being,” Speight tells me. “We’ve tried really hard to be there for families, calling every week to check-in, or more regularly for our vulnerable students.”

“As well as this, we’ve joined forces with The Bevy pub to put together an “Emergency Food Project” for our vulnerable families and people in the wider community. This has involved delivering good, hearty “meals on wheels” cooked by our Catering teacher in the school kitchen. The meals are produced from surplus food ingredients and fresh produce, coordinated and delivered to BACA via The Bevy, from Fareshare Sussex, Brighton Food Factory and other local organisations. So far we’ve delivered 2,000 meals to families.”

This week, following vague suggestions from the Government that some lockdown measures will be eased on Monday, rumours have started to circulate about the possibility of schools re-opening after May half-term. Speight tells me that such speculation is unhelpful and causes anxiety, making teachers worry that they will be forced to return to work before schools have had chance to prepare properly. Government ministers have been criticised for underestimating just how difficult implementing social distancing measures in schools would be. In a recent TES poll of 17,000 UK school staff, 74 per cent of those asked said social distancing in schools would be “impossible”.

“As teachers, we understand that schools are a small element in a much bigger picture, but the health and safety of students and staff has to be the priority. Socially distanced learning in schools would be a huge challenge, but not insurmountable. However, the issue is so much more complicated than simply whether or not social distancing measures could work. What would the quality of lessons be like in an environment like this? You certainly wouldn’t be able to have all students in at once, so if teachers were working in school, what would they be able to provide for those students staying at home? Running dual provision would be much harder. How does re-opening schools for certain year groups help those families with children in different year groups? We can’t pretend; logistically, it would be so complex.”

Teachers’ unions in the UK share Speight’s concerns. Earlier this week, the General Secretary of the teachers’ union NASUWT, Dr Patrick Roach, sent a letter to the Education Secretary arguing that “the arbitrary date of June 1st for the reopening of schools is wholly premature”:

“With the highest COVID-19 mortality rates in Europe, it is clear that the Government must continue to adopt an extremely cautious approach which does not contribute to further deaths and another intensive wave of the virus in the UK. In this context, the NASUWT is firmly of the view that changing the current restrictions on the opening of schools would be highly premature and extremely damaging. Schools must be reopened only when it is safe to do so. In view of the continued and pressing public health challenges and the considerable task that will be required to ensure that every school is ready to admit increased numbers of children and adults into safe learning and working environments, the NASUWT urges the Government to end speculation on the reopening of schools beyond the current restrictions prior to September 2020.”

“There is no point speculating, but whatever the Government’s plans are, we need detailed guidance,” Speight says. “I hope they proceed with caution, and give schools plenty of time to prepare. I just want our staff, students and their families to know that I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the way they have made the best of things since closure.”