3 January 2021

Dear Parents & Carers,

 

I wrote to you on 17th December with a sense of pride (and relief) that we had reached the end of a very different, but overwhelmingly positive, term. There had been comparatively very few positive cases in school in the 15 week Autumn Term and the majority of students had 100% attendance. Only a small number of students had needed to self-isolate and we had offered a full curriculum, after school activities for many and had also covered a significant amount of content in class. We had planned carefully for January and were hopeful that things would continue in a similar manner.

 

It was apparent very quickly, however, that the local situation was changing from Saturday 19th December onwards, as we were informed of 13 additional confirmed positive tests as we carried out our track and trace responsibilities up to Christmas Eve. For context, that 4 day figure represented more than our total number for the Autumn Term. I spoke with a large number of parents in that week to explain the need for their child to self-isolate and was genuinely appreciative of how supportive and understanding families were. My reason for sharing that information is that current circumstances – locally, regionally, nationally – feel quite different and it is apparent that things are much more complicated. However, it is also clear that there has been a ratcheting up of criticism, speculation and political position taking every time schools have reached the end of a term, or are preparing for a new one. That now represents a normal state of affairs and there are competing views regarding Covid, schools and public health.

 

I am sure that all members of our school community will have been following that speculation in recent days regarding the return to school with increased apprehension. Since March we have tried to be consistent and to share information in a calm and professional manner. On occasion that has meant not giving immediate answers to parental or student queries, because we haven’t had the opportunity to consider an issue fully or genuinely haven’t received the necessary information. I’m aware that some schools have now written to parents 4 times since Tuesday 29th December and each time their advice has changed. That is not intended as a criticism, as I also understand the desire to inform and the importance of timely communication. However, things are currently changing with such frequency that offering clear or incontestable guidance is extremely difficult. With that in mind, I wanted to share Durham Johnston’s position on a number of the issues that you will be aware of and, quite possibly, worried about. Whilst things might change, I hope the following comments outline our position and what we want to happen.

 

  • Should schools be open or closed? We have never seen this as an educational or political decision, but as a matter of public health. I am fully aware of all of the associated arguments, but, fundamentally, asking teachers to decide on matters of public health is nonsensical. What I can state with absolute clarity is that we want students to be in school and offer an excellent standard of education when they are. At no point do we want Durham Johnston to close – all schools are obviously far more effective in offering emotional support and educational opportunities when they are open. We will continue to work hard for all students at Durham Johnston and want them to be at school if that is what public health officials advise. We will be critical of national or local decisions if we believe them to be wrong for our students, but not simply for its own sake or to make political points. Public health and education should both be free of political influence, some might say interference, whenever possible or practical.
    Key Point: We want all students to be in school if at all possible. It is much harder to support students when schools are closed.

 

  • A return to school on 4th January – The school is open for the children of key workers and those deemed vulnerable. Current Public Health guidance is to limit the opportunity for transmission to take place as much as possible and it would be sensible for key worker parents to only access places if necessary, but the school will make provision for all students that need it. Those students in school will be mainly working on laptops and will access their lessons in the same way as students working at home. We will maintain our current protective bubbles for students, they won’t all be working together in one space. They need to wear their PE kit or school uniform and should still make sure that they have a warm coat as rooms will be ventilated. Please also note that all students will be asked to wear face coverings both in communal areas and in the classroom. It is very likely that the Department for Education will insist upon face coverings in classrooms when all students return.
    Key Point: Provision can be accessed for key groups of students, but it is sensible to access time in school only if necessary, so as to limit transmission.

 

  • A return to school on 11th January – We currently expect Year 11 and 13 students to return on that date and, after risk is assessed, for Year 12 to return on Thursday 14th January. Please also note that students in those year groups will be asked to wear face coverings in communal areas and in the classroom.
    Key Point: We hope to have Year 11 and 13 back in school and are planning for that to be the case.

 

  • A return to school on 18th January – We currently expect all other year groups to return on that date. Please also note that students in those year groups will be asked to wear face coverings in communal areas and in the classroom.
    Key Point: We hope to have all year groups back in school and are planning for that to be the case.

 

  • The half-term ahead – This is a very important term for all of our students, but particularly for Years 9, 11 and 12. We do not intend to change our current schedule as it was planned very carefully to support students at key points in their development. Our parents’ evenings and reporting cycle will carry on for Years 9 and 11 and, even if the lockdown is extended, we will do all that we can to still host Year 12 mock examinations. Those Year 12 students were denied the chance to sit their GCSE examinations and it is important that, if at all possible, we provide that experience and opportunity for them. 
    Key Point: We have thought carefully about the term ahead and are committed to offering advice and support to aid the development of key year groups.

 

  • Remote Learning – The advice from the Department for Education states that remote learning in the week 4th January onwards should be for Year 11 and 13 only. However, we will do all that we can to deliver live lessons and support via MS Teams for all year groups from that date onwards. Year 11 and 13 are clearly at a key point in their education with an important summer ahead, but we believe all year groups should access education. Due to the small number of cases in school during the autumn term, we have only had one experience of a large group of students in Year 12 needing to self-isolate. That went well in terms of engagement and teacher support, but Year 12 were confident with Teams and only studying 3 or 4 subjects. We are committed to teaching all students from Monday 4th January onwards, which is not necessary based upon DfE guidance. Therefore, please be understanding if not everything is perfect immediately. We are committed to doing so as we want to support all students but there may be teething problems. We will learn quickly from experience regarding what works and what needs refinement.
    Key Point: We are committed to supporting all students from 4th January onwards, rather than a small number as advised. There will be teething problems, but we are committed to provision for all students, not a minority.

 

  • Remote Learning for some subjects – Remote learning is not a straightforward proposition for many practical subjects at KS3, but we will still try to offer as much live teaching and guidance as possible in those subjects. It is also important to note that we will have some staff absence to contend with and need to train teachers who are covering maternity leave and illness. Again, please be understanding of this. Our DT department will not be providing live teaching for KS3 students in the week beginning 4th January as they will be working with GCSE students who have external examinations. They will provide work for students to access via Teams. Please also be aware that MS Team is purely for students, it is not a forum for parents or carers to engage with teachers – we have very clear systems already in place if you have a query. Teachers will work with students through the school day, but will not answer questions at night or beyond their working hours as a matter of course. We are always very concerned if students send questions or comments late at night, as it is important for all students to get sufficient rest to be healthy.
    Key Point: All subjects are different and that will be reflected in the range of interaction and teaching that takes place, particularly regarding practical subjects. We also have some staffing issues that will have an impact.

 

  • IT and internet access – We have provided a large number of laptops and IT equipment for students since April 2020. We have requested more laptops from the Department of Education and would encourage you to contact us if you have any particular issues in January; we will do all that we can to help.  Please encourage your child to familiarise themselves with the guidance on our school website regarding how to use Teams and let us know if you have issues.
    Key Point: Get in touch with us if you are having issues and we will do all that we can to support you and to find a solution. 

 

  • Houses with a number of children, but only one device – We have also provided IT equipment for large families where devices are being shared to complete schoolwork. Again, please let us know if you are having individual issues regarding shared devices.
    Key Point: Get in touch with us if you are having issues and we will do all that we can to support you and to find a solution. 

 

  • Lateral Flow Testing – We remain very concerned about the current level of guidance and governmental expectation regarding lateral flow testing. We are very used to managing large logistical projects in school. However, we remain concerned around the veracity of such tests in a school context and, in practical terms, whether the management of such a system will actually take significant teaching time away from students, the antithesis of what is intended. The weekly testing of 1900 people is not a straightforward proposition in any context. At present we have had no public health input regarding testing and are also concerned about the financial implications of such an undertaking for school budgets. In March 2020 we were promised reimbursement for any Covid costs that the school incurred. Those costs were significant and in November we were finally given 5% of the overall costs to the school. That isn’t a complaint, more an observation in relation to our reticence to spend public money on a testing system that is unproven in a school context and has limited public health involvement to date.  The Department for Education have explained that schools must set up testing centres, but we will wait for additional guidance from the Local Authority and for the Department for Education to share their scientific evidence on why they believe such testing will be effective before taking further action.
    Key Point: We currently lack the necessary detail and public health information to commit the time, energy and finance needed to start this process. If it can help our students, we will make it work very effectively, but there is insufficient detail at present to make that judgement.

 

  • GCSE and A Level examinations – We are still very hopeful that examinations will take place in the summer and still feel that the Department for Education has time to implement a ‘Plan B’ for exams with more limited content, or some form of internal assessment in schools prior to June. Therefore, we will continue to do all that we can to prepare our students for their examinations. However, we aren’t naïve and know that the time available for decision making is receding. If there is any change in the Government’s current planning, we will share an update with you immediately. Our Year 11 virtual parents’ evening will take place next week, but teachers have been asked not to speculate on what might happen in terms of GCSE examinations; we genuinely know as much as parents at present.
    Key Point: Teachers, students and parents all need a sense of what the Government has planned so that we can maximise the time available to support our students and give them every opportunity to succeed.  

 

We expect that things will continue to change very quickly, but I hope that the above key points offer a sensible and professional approach given our current context. I will continue to communicate as frequently as necessary and we will do all that we can to answer your questions as they arise. We are entering a new phase that appears quite bleak, but things will improve and we will continue to support our students so that they can focus upon the possibilities and opportunities that are ahead of them, rather than the short-term difficulties that we are all currently facing.

 

Best wishes

 

Mr O’Sullivan