The government has been accused of turning a blind eye to the disruption Covid is creating in Greater Manchester’s schools.
Mayor Andy Burnham confirmed that one in every eight pupils in the region is now being affected by closures at any given time.
The figure – 12.5% of schoolchildren, compared with 5% across England – perhaps comes as no surprise to most. Since schools returned in September we’ve been keeping an up-to-date list of bubble closures at primaries and secondaries.
In the first half of the autumn term the number of schools affected by positive cases reached more than 580.
Since October half term, figures have been rising again, and with some pupils now facing their third of fourth lot of isolation, the ongoing disruption the virus is causing has become ever more apparent.
Headteachers say cases are on the rise and despite the numerous measures they have introduced to help stop the spread of the virus, it’s taking a hold – particularly in high schools.
The latest evidence from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) says that since schools reopened in September, Public Health England indicates there have ‘been more than 1,000 instances where there have been two or more test-confirmed cases of Covid-19 in educational settings’.
And while there is no current direct evidence that transmission within schools plays a significant contributory role in driving increased rates of infection among children, ‘neither is there direct evidence to suggest otherwise’.
This week, a rise in positive tests on pupils at Manchester Health Academy in Wythenshawe, sparked principal Kevin Green’s decision to move to remote learning for every year group until cases subside.
He feels it’s the only way to ‘provide a level of consistency’ to pupils and prevent them from being in and out of school when a new case is most likely confirmed.
Like many headteachers, he doesn’t want schools to close, but says it’s a fine balance between keeping pupils safe and making sure their education doesn’t suffer.
“My view is that school is the right place for children to be,” said Mr Green, whose school is now offering live lessons online and has issued more than 400 laptops to children who need them, as well as providing internet access for families with no wifi.
“It was with a huge degree of reluctance that I took the decision to keep pupils at home. There’s no substitute for having a real teacher in front of you, but they need some consistency.”
The impact on pupils – their mental health and well-being as much as their education – is worrying families and schools, particularly for those isolating for a fortnight at a time.
But it’s the government’s insistence to press ahead with next summer’s GCSEs and A-Levels that’s causing the greatest concern.
Is your child due to take GCSEs or A-Level exams next year? Have they spent time remote learning since September? How do you feel about the exams going ahead? Let us know in the comments here, or on our Manchester Family Facebook page.
Parents and heads say Manchester’s students, some of whom will have spent weeks or even months remote learning, will never have a level playing field against youngsters in other parts of the country, who have been largely unaffected by the virus.
One of those students is Oliver Preston, who is currently self-isolating after positive cases in Year 11 at Bury Church of England High School.
It’s his second time isolating. For others in his year it’s their fifth.
“All exams for 2021 need cancelling,” said Oliver. “Coronavirus has had a major effect on schools since March when we went into lockdown and then when we returned back in September.
“We missed more than a term of teaching before the summer. That is about 20 percent of teaching for the GCSE curriculum. Since returning to school in September, in my year group only, we’ve had about 20 positive pupil cases and 20 teacher cases.
“Isolating students are expected to stay off for two weeks then return to school. Fortunately, I have only come into contact with two positive pupils leading in four weeks out of school, but there are pupils who are on their fourth and fifth time isolating. That is eight to 10 weeks of lost education. Last week there was only 22 percent of Year 11 left in my school so the whole of Year 11 was sent home and told not come in until November 23.”
Despite the Welsh government last week confirming it will be scrapping exams in favour of coursework and teacher assessments, the government in England is still insisting GCSEs will go ahead as planned, albeit with a slight delay.
Oliver, 16, added: “Do the government expect us to be able to catch up on all this lost education, feedback and support? The exams need to cancelled and a different assessment strategy used for GCSEs in 2021.”
The teenager is far from alone in his campaign. We reported last week how headteachers in Wigan are encouraging parents to lobby government for a rethink.
Every secondary school headteacher in the borough has written to Year 11 parents asking for their help to raise awareness of the ‘inequality and unfairness’ of pushing ahead with the exams.
Danielle Turver’s children are both currently remote learning from Years 9 and 11 at Oasis Academy Oldham.
She said: “I honestly feel for all Year 11s. This is just not fair on them, they are worried about GCSEs and it’s affecting them something rotten.
“I just think that because it’s the north, central government don’t care and won’t care until it affects those in London.”
Mum Julie Nelson is equally concerned.
Her daughter is in Year 11 at The Kingsway School in Cheadle and has been told that apart from attending school for mock exams, she’ll be working at home until Christmas.
“The government need to cancel the exams next year and give our kids a fair assessment,” she said.
“I have no complaints about how the school have handled the situation, the head is very approachable and all of the teachers I have dealt with appear to go above and beyond for their students.
“I’m concerned that it isn’t a level playing field for GCSE students. Ours is a large school in an area with higher levels of Covid so it has more cases in school, which to me stands to reason.
“My main concern regarding home teaching online is that while working from home my daughter will be alone in the house for 10 hours a day as her dad and I work long hours and with the best will in the world online lessons are no substitute for having a teacher in front of you to ask questions and keep you focused.”
Manchester’s Co-op Academy schools are among those affected by the region’s cases. With the Co-op Academies Trust also having schools in Stoke, Merseyside and West Yorkshire – all places with high rates of the virus – it’s perhaps the most affected trust in the country.
CEO Chris Tomlinson says pupils in the north are having a vastly different experience to those elsewhere.
He said: “There is no doubt the challenges that schools are facing currently are far greater in the north due to the very high infection rates in the communities they serve and work within.
“Schools in the south may have 95% attendance, whilst some schools in the north have 80% – that’s a months difference, a month of lost learning. At no fault of the students, they’re a month behind their counterparts in the south.”
He is calling for a number of actions from the Department for Education in order ‘to level up the time missed in schools’.
These include a ‘regional premium of financial support to cover the extra costs that schools in the north are having to find’; prioritising digital devices for pupils in the north – with schools receiving their full quota and not the reduced numbers they’ve now been given; and mass testing for communities in the north.
Rather than calling for exams to be scrapped, he wants ‘regional grade boundaries or other adjustments’ to give special consideration to Year 11 and 13 students in the north and says the National Tutoring Programme ‘should prioritise schools and students in the north that have been most impacted’.
Mr Burnham says he fully understands the concerns and acknowledged that pupils in the north are facing much more disruption than elsewhere.
“More of our kids have spent more time out of the classroom than their counterparts in other parts of the country,” he said. “And for that reason, if we head towards a traditional exam season – three weeks late as is currently being proposed – young people in Greater Manchester are going to be seriously disadvantaged by that.”
He said the Greater Manchester Covid Emergency Committee will be meeting next week to ‘consider this issue again’ and sign-off a proposal to the government about next year’s exams, for a system that would ‘allow some consideration to be given for the loss of teaching time that many of our young people have faced.”
In its latest guidance the government says that ‘senior clinicians still advise that school is the best place for children to be’ and ‘exams are the fairest way of judging a student’s performance’.
A DfE spokesperson said: “The government has made it a national priority to keep all nurseries, schools, colleges and universities open to all pupils and students because of the clear benefits to children’s and young people’s education and wellbeing.
“The chief and deputy chief medical officers have been clear the balance of evidence is firmly in favour of schools remaining open, and have highlighted the damage caused by not being in education to children’s learning, development and mental health.
“We recognise this is a challenging time and are hugely grateful to the school leaders, teachers and staff for ongoing extraordinary work to ensure children continue to receive the education and support they deserve.”
Has your school had to send children home to self-isolate? Let us know in the comments or email the details to [email protected]