Setting Covid-19 control measures in schools is “a balancing act”, according to a headteacher whose pupils are among the first in England going back to class.
Liam Powell, headteacher of Manor High School in Oadby, Leicestershire, 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”.
Mr Powell 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”.
The head, whose Year 7 and Year 11 cohorts returned to lessons on Tuesday, was speaking amid criticism from some teaching and school leaders’ unions of the Government’s advice on face coverings.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said ministers were following the “best scientific and medical advice”, adding it was not necessary for face coverings to be mandatory in all schools across the country.
But in a message to members of school leaders’ union NAHT, general secretary Paul Whiteman said it would be “prudent” for masks to be used more widely.
At Manor High, which has 900 pupils on its roll, Mr Powell has led a school which was initially part of Leicester’s local lockdown, before the Oadby and Wigston borough – on the city’s border – was removed, during an easing of measures.
Had it stayed inside the lockdown zone, face coverings would be mandatory for his pupils in corridors and communal areas, according to new Government guidance, announced on Tuesday night.
Schools across Leicestershire including locked-down Leicester are going back this week ahead of the majority of schools in England, because they traditionally break up for summer a week earlier.
Mr Powell said the school had decided to allow voluntary mask-wearing which “turned out to be national policy, as of last (Tuesday) night”.
He said: “I read the Secretary of State’s announcement and he was quoting and responding to what the World Health Organisation (WHO) were saying about masks.
“We had looked beyond the horizon to what was happening in France and Germany and nearer to home, what was happening in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
“So it seemed a natural conclusion that England may well go in the same direction as well.”
The school’s catchment means many of the children’s parents are medical professionals employed at the city’s three hospitals; Leicester Royal, Leicester General and Glenfield.
As a result, many children had turned up to collect GCSE results or for their first day back, wearing masks.
Mr Powell said: “We had to have a response to that.
“One option was to say: ‘Don’t wear a mask, we forbid it’; another was to say: ‘It’s compulsory, you must wear it.’
“A third one was to say: ‘Actually we are compliant, we are going to give you the option to do it.’
“Actually, that turned out to be national policy as of last night.”
Mr Powell said he did “not feel isolated” with Government advice “frequently” via emails and idea-sharing generated by a local peer group of headteachers, including a move to whole-day single-topic lessons, which cuts the need for pupils moving between classrooms.
The school also has also introduced hand sanitisers and a one-way system.
Mr Powell has some sympathy for those in national and local government, adding: “It’s been a summer of great change.
“But what I think is that in each case the right thing was done.
“And I do understand it is not always possible to plan ahead in the way one might like.”
Asked if the Government could have provided better support to schools, or more timely advice over issues such as face-covering policy, he said: “I think there’s a balancing act.”
He added the “whole system works best under a national, global emergency – a pandemic – when professionals all talk to each other.”
“I think it’s really important that government – local, national – and the profession maintain a constant dialogue,” he said.
“Because things changed rapidly on the floor and there’s stuff we need to feed back.
“Things change in real time.”
He added constant communication “makes us all more responsive”.
Mr Powell said centralised decision-making only helped so much, adding “local need” had a key role to play for schools to quickly respond to conditions in their areas.
He said: “It is useful to have that advice coming centrally, but having freedom to respond to what is right for our local setting as well.
“I think there’s a balancing act.”
Mr Powell also said it was time for Government to start thinking about schools dealing with the continuing presence of Covid-19 into next year.
He said: “If we go into another lockdown, how are we going to do our mock GCSEs amid that?
“If the lockdown is later in the academic year, we could be in the same position again with the GCSEs exams.
“We need an online form of assessment.”
He added: “As long as we keep learning and safety as our two key priorities, I don’t think we’ll go wrong.”