It is too early to say when schools will re-open full time to all pupils – and it is possible some may not even go back next term, Wales’ Education Minister has admitted.
Although the plan is to start getting the youngest children aged up to seven back into classrooms some of the time, that depends on the situation with the pandemic and pressure on the NHS, Kirsty Williams said.
She is looking at changing academic year dates for next school year and repeated her intention to look at using school holidays to help children catch up after a year of disrupted learning.
The summer holiday could be shortened to enable a longer “firebreak” half term or extended Christmas holiday in the new academic year.
Acknowledging that being out of school and college is having a negative impact on children and young people Ms Williams insisted it was essential, for now, to stop the pandemic getting out of control..
The minister said a range of indicators were being looked at when deciding to keep classrooms shut to most pupils.
These include rates of infection and pressure on the NHS. But the minister would not be drawn on the precise criteria for what needs to happen in the NHS or with infection rates, or for how long, before face to face learning can resume for all.
While many schools are working hard to provide remote teaching, she conceded that there is still variation and said providing catch up, or extending play schemes in the summer holiday are being looked at.
More details on how assessments for cancelled GCSE, AS and A levels will work will be released on Friday, February 5, and August results days may be reviewed if England pulls back its results days to July, as has been indicated.
And although Covid infection rates are now falling continued pressure on the NHS has not eased enough for restrictions to be lifted yet.
When the situation allows classrooms will be the first thing to re-open, she promised.
What must happen before all pupils can return to school?
Ms Williams: “We are looking at the number of cases per 100,00 and the good news is those are dropping. We are looking at positivity rates in testing and pressure on the NHS. We are living under these circumstances because we are trying to ensure the NHS is not overwhelmed.
“We don’t want to do anything in education that would put the transmission rate above one (ie one person passing the virus on to more than one other person).
“We are looking at this range of data and are absolutely clear if we have headroom to do anything then it is to get more children back to face to face teaching.
“We need to keep an eye on NHS capacity.”
Is keeping classrooms shut proportionate to the impact on pupils?
Ms Williams:”It is easier to put in a graph how many ICU beds are needed than to capture the isolation a child feels not going to school.
“We know, with high levels of confidence, that being out of school is detrimental to children and particularly children with special educational needs and children from deprived communities and for those children whose language is English in Welsh medium schools.
“It is about measuring harms, but we always have to measure that against where we are in the pandemic.
“Just prior to Christmas and after Christmas it became very difficult to keep education open. We know it does, potentially lead to transmission, not because schools are open, but because of activities associated with schools being open.
“It is challenging keeping schools open in levels of community transmission are high. To limit impact on education we need to get community levels low and keep them low.
So will all pupils even return to classrooms in the summer term?
Ms Williams:”I haven’t got a crystal ball. All I can do is work with the scientists to understand how much headroom there we have got to lift restrictions on society.
“We have got a government here in Wales committed to using any headroom to support children back into school.
“It is an uncertain time. We have to deal with a virus that some times throws us a curve ball. The theoretical threat of new variants is always there.
You have said holidays might be used to help with learning catch up. What’s the plan?
Ms Williams: “There is a range of possibilities about how we can use the summer recess in Wales. We are long overdue a look at how the academic year is structured.
“Prior to Covid we had an independent group looking at just that, as to whether the current way we organise education is fit for purpose.
“Because of the long term issues we already know about, and research tells us about the issues in terms of learning loss over the summer, especially for our more deprived children, clearly Covid has interrupted some of that strategic work, but Covid also requires us to think anew.
“At the moment our focus is on the here and now and trying to get children back to face to face teaching, but I think we do need to have a conversation about how the pandemic might look in the autumn (this year) and winter (this year) and whether, when we are thinking about mitigating against the impact of Covid and keeping our schools, and those who work in them, safe, is it possible whether there is scope for shifting the academic year, maybe shortening the summer holiday and ensuring we have a firebreak at (autumn) half term or an extended Christmas holiday when we know the potential public health scenario might deteriorate again.
“We need to work with experts to try and understand how the pandemic might look like next autumn and winter and how we can take proactive steps to mitigate against further disruption by slightly amending the summer arrangements we already have.
“But, clearly, we have to negotiate that with employers and employers and their employees, rightly, guard their terms and conditions, but we do need to talk and think about the need to get ahead.”
When will there be more detail about assessments replacing exams?
Ms Williams: “We will publish more details this Friday to give guidance to schools about materials to arrive at Centre Assessed Grades and quality assure them and how they can work together to moderate.”
You have announced GCSE, AS and A level results days in August. Could this change now that England is looking at results days in July?
Ms Williams: “It is regrettable that England is consulting on results days without consultation or reference to us and there is some concern. We believe our results days should remain the same and wait to see what England will do.
“It is in the interests of all if there is a single results day for Wales, England and Northern Ireland (Scotland’s has always been different). But clearly, as always, I keep things under review. If we think our students will be put at disadvantage for having different results days I would want to take action against that.
“But, I suspect that in the end England won’t go for July results days.”
What about vocational learners and qualifications?
Ms Williams: “Vocational learners are more complicated because vocational qualifications are not regulated in Wales. We are liaising with qualifying bodies to ensure vocational students don’t feel treated less fairly. We are working with colleges so that after half term we can see careful return of students who need space for technical work.”
How will young people not at school be assessed for exam grades?
Ms Williams: “You are talking about private candidates. This is being worked on. I have asked the Delivery and Design Group to allow private candidates to be assessed. The WJEC will have an assessment tool that can be used.”
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