Ministers must give clear guidance on face coverings in schools, says head

There is a “unanimous chorus” from schools calling for a stronger stance from the Government on the use of masks, a headteacher has said.

Face coverings should be worn in communal areas by secondary pupils and staff in local lockdown areas of England, and at the discretion of post-primary schools across the rest of the country, the Government announced in another policy U-turn on Tuesday night.

But Sarah Brinkley, who is executive headteacher for John Mason School and Fitzharrys School in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, and a member of the Association of School and College Leaders, said mask-wearing policies should not be discretionary for individual schools.

“Just tell us. We are not medically trained, what we do is teach children … to put that decision at our feet, I think, is passing the buck,” the 49-year-old told the PA news agency.

“It’s a standing joke in the teacher community that the (Department of Education) guidance is a bit like the pirate’s code in Pirates Of The Caribbean – it’s just guidance.

“And that’s ridiculous. It’s a pandemic. It’s not a joke. Clear guidance is needed because people’s lives are at stake.

“When we first went to lockdown, I had an email from a parent – he said if my child dies of coronavirus, I will hold you personally responsible.

“If that’s how people are feeling, because people get scared, then what you need is strong, true leadership… the U-turns (from the Government) don’t show strength.”

Ms Brinkley said her schools had already independently performed a risk assessment before the latest U-turn and are recommending students wear a covering between lessons, but this will not be policed.

Pupils who wish to wear masks in class will be allowed if they have a “good reason” to do so.

Ms Brinkley added that pupils are being underestimated in their ability to understand and abide by health and safety issues surrounding Covid-19.

“Let’s not underestimate what these young people understand about what’s happening in the world,” she said.

Liam Powell, headteacher of Manor High School in Oadby, Leicestershire, said he had not felt “isolated” from Government advice but that more communication between all levels of government and the teaching profession “makes us all more responsive”.

He said the ever-shifting nature of the Covid-19 pandemic meant he and other education leaders had to forecast what changes may come and be ready with a “plan B”.

“It’s been a summer of great change… but what I think is that in each case the right thing was done,” he said.

Coronavirus – Wed Aug 26, 2020
Coronavirus – Wed Aug 26, 2020

Katharine Birbalsingh, founder and headteacher of Michaela Community School, a free school in London, said there was a “need to take into account children’s behaviour when considering whether or not masks make them safer”.

She told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme: “What about the children who turn up to school with uniforms that aren’t washed?

“They don’t necessarily wash themselves, they come to school hungry, they will be wearing reused dirty masks.

“When half of your children show up to school and aren’t wearing masks, what do you do, do you exclude them?

“The girls will be in the loos checking their masks to make sure they look nice, they’ll be touching their faces all the more.

“We need to take into account children’s behaviour when considering whether or not masks make them safer and I would actually argue that they make them less safe.”