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Agenda item

Return to School in Covid-19 - Update on Schools Fully Opening

(a)  Report of the Executive Director, People Services and


(b)  Presentation from the Director of Education and Skills and the Chief Executive Officer, Learn Sheffield




The Committee received a report of the Executive Director, People Services concerning schools opening fully in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The report provided an update on the return to schools from September, 2020, and the support provided during the pandemic to date, including in relation to public health, school transport and health, safety and wellbeing.




In attendance for this item were Councillor Abtisam Mohamed (Cabinet Member for Education and Skills), Andrew Jones (Interim Director of Education and Skills (Sheffield City Council)), Stephen Betts (Chief Executive, Learn Sheffield). School Leaders in attendance were Cathy Rowland (Dobcroft Infant School), Sacha Schofield (Bents Green Special School), Chris French (Mercia Learning Trust) and Joanne Bradshaw (Sheffield South East Trust).




Andrew Jones introduced the report, stating that the pandemic had been an extremely challenging situation for providers, and he praised schools, education providers and childcare providers for how they had responded throughout. Schools and providers had remained open during the pandemic, and this was important in relation to the quality of education provision and to enable parents to go to work. From 15th June, 2020, Sheffield schools had opened more widely to other groups of children.




The Council and its partners in Learn Sheffield had provided a strong lead and support and had worked with schools and providers, including in relation to the public health team, which had provided ongoing support to schools both in relation to cases of Covid-19,  and to ensure that guidance was easy to follow.  Schools could report instances of Covid-19 to either Public Health England (PHE), the Department for Education (DfE) or to the local public health team. There were recent issues which had arisen with regard to whether headteachers could reasonably be expected to make decisions with regard to significant public health matters and which were being taken up with the DfE. 




Some schools had experienced instances of Covid-19, with the majority of those being from community and home settings rather than transmission in schools. Support had been provided relating to provision of school food and schools supporting each other if there were kitchen staff shortages.




There was continuing focus on children with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), who were entitled to attend school during the lockdown to ensure that support and provision for them was as continuous as possible. School transport resumed in September. Attendance during the lockdown was between 20 to 25 percent of children still going to school and since September, it was approximately 87 percent in primary schools and 85 percent in secondary schools. Risk assessments for schools were in place and included mitigations which it was intended, together with campaigns, would help to ease parents’ anxiety about children’s safety and wellbeing, and would also affect attendance.




There had been a significant increase in the number of children who were electively home educated since September. Normally, there would be approximately 20 new children registered for home education. However, in September, there had been approximately 200, with most of the parents citing anxiety and concerns about Coronavirus as the reason for wanting to educate children at home.




There had been instances of children having to go home or because of the occurrence of Covid-19 in a school and in such cases, work was provided for children by schools.




Some 1800 laptops had been provided by the DfE to vulnerable children in the City, and a further laptop scheme had also been introduced. Schools had started to receive allocations from the Government catch up funding for a national tutoring service and individual support for children, and Learn Sheffield was working with schools in relation to maximising use of that funding.




Stephen Betts informed the Committee that the Covid-19 Recovery Festival comprised 20 events during September, and had been accessed by one thousand people. That would lead into a Covid-19 Recovery Plan, which included use of the catch up funding mentioned above.




There was a recent initiative by the WANdisco founder and Chief Executive, and supported by Learn Sheffield and the Cabinet Member for Education and Skills, for businesses to donate laptops for distribution to schools.




The invited school leaders - Sacha Schofield, Joanne Bradshaw,  Cathy Rowland and Chris French then provided the Committee with an insight into the experience of schools during the period of the  pandemic so far and this was summarised as follows:-




The support to schools provided by Learn Sheffield, the Council’s Public Health Team and that of the Director of Education and Skills was acknowledged. Particular mention was made of the public health team’s guidance in relation to the specific medical, social and emotional needs of students in the special sector and helping students with particular medical needs to go back to school. Students were happy to be back at school, and there was further work to be done to help support students with significant medical issues to get back to school.




These had been unprecedented and challenging times for education. Schools had remained open after 23rd March, 2020, and played a valuable role during the national lockdown. In Sheffield, there had been a city-wide strategy and collaborative effort in the education sector, regardless of status of school, and the valuable public health team advice to school leaders was gratefully acknowledged in interpreting Government guidance. Particular mention was made of the invaluable support provided by Bethan Plant and Greg Fell in the Public Health Team and to the roles of Andrew Jones and Stephen Betts and their colleagues in providing information and updates, as well as being there as a point of contact. Whilst children had returned to school, there was still anxiety and work to be done in relation to the health and wellbeing of pupils, parents and staff.




Food distribution and making sure that children and families were fed had been a key issue, and this had been supported by the Council. Mention was made of the Easter Hamper Scheme, which brought people together to deliver hampers to children and families and work with the voluntary food distribution sector to deliver food parcels to families. The national free school meals vouchers also served a purpose, although it was sometimes difficult to manage that scheme.




There had been significant progress in relation to learning at home and online learning could be provided. However, in addition to online learning, it had been necessary to deliver equipment including desks, chairs, pencils, paper and reading books to families, to enable children to learn.




There had been good support from the Council. There was a lot of information from the DfE each day, and this did not always help deal with the practical matters. As a leader in school, it was a big responsibility to also consider public health matters and risk assessments in schools relating to Covid-19 and the support of the Public Health Team’s expertise was invaluable. Attention was on day to day management of issues relating to the pandemic in schools, in addition to other leadership responsibilities. People all contributed to deliver things which may not be within their usual role and within the bubble structure in schools established to help keep people safe. The work of the unions was also acknowledged in relation to representing members and in looking at the right balance of the various considerations relating to schools for children and families and staff.




Issues such as catch up and recovery had to be set in context of managing the present circumstances and the consideration given to physical premises and staffing resources which may have to adapt each day to account for changes. Staffing was also affected by Covid-19 testing, the results of which might take four to five days, and self-isolation.




Families also had their own issues to contend with, in trying to support young people at home and also managing their own jobs and circumstances, so it was acknowledged to be potentially very difficult for families, regardless of the learning resources that schools might provide.




It was reaffirmed that the education sector was working together, regardless of a school’s maintained or academy status and feeling part of a collective, rather than alone had been important for school leaders.




There had been a lot of effort put into safety and logistical planning and children had returned to schools strongly on the whole and parents were confident in the overwhelming majority of cases. Nonetheless, there were emerging challenges and a varied picture in schools, including an increase in absences due to contact tracing and cases of Covid-19 in communities affecting schools, and which impacted upon pupil and staff absence, school leadership and support and other staffing areas, including dinner teams.




In the Mercia Trust, staff absence had been significant although schools had continued to run. There was pressure, particularly on senior staff as regards school organisation relating to Covid-19 and in ensuring they were present in school. Positively, the statistics relating to wellbeing and behaviour were good, and this was indicative of the high profile of staff and children wishing to get back to school.  There were children in relation to which there had been concerns prior to the pandemic, and that remained to be the case. It was, however, relatively early to make a judgement, and the evidence suggested that issues relating to wellbeing may occur later in time.




There were challenges in managing pupil absence when pupils were absent through contact tracing and in setting work for pupils to do at home, which was appropriate. The offer for remote education was a combination of virtual and hard copy resources and was challenging in relation to expectations for remote learning. There was some anxiety, especially for older students, such as those seeking university places or an apprenticeship.




It would be demanding to sustain the present levels effort throughout the year. There were also unknown factors which would affect schools, for example, significant expenditure on outdoor covered areas to supplement dining rooms.




Whilst things had been challenging, schools were open and did feel reasonably settled. However, disruptions could be profound and it was likely that there would be more disruption and absences over time. There was a reliance on schools being even more resilient and developing a robust remote learning offer. There was not yet clarity concerning end of year outcomes, both for primary and secondary schools, including for Key Stages 4 and 5.  A number of things that had been put in place in schools and driven by safety expectations were likely to remain after the pandemic, and which had positive effects on student behaviour, supervision or general wellbeing.




Members of the Committee raised questions, and the following responses were provided:-




There were legal requirements for remote learning and considerations with regards to age appropriate facilities and activities for learning. Parents also needed to be able to manage to support such remote learning in the context of other family and job-related circumstances. Attendance and home education were areas of focus for the Council. Some parents were understandably anxious, and that was the background to some issues with attendance. The Council would seek to understand what lay behind those anxieties and to work with families and provide reassurance, rather than pursuing a punitive approach and issuing fines to people in relation to non-attendance in the current term. Attendance officers had been allocated to help provide such support to families.




Whilst the Council and the Government had run back to school campaigns during the summer, there were concerns that the media reporting was that parents would be fined if children did not return to school, and this may have contributed to an increase in elective home education, as parents were worried that they would be fined if children were absent.  Checks and balances were being put in place through Multi Agency Support Teams (MAST) as a priority, which provided safe and well checks for children that were home educated. In relation to the provision and plans, families had to support children educated at home, there was one teacher assigned to that role in Sheffield. This was not adequate in the present circumstances of increased numbers of children educated at home and therefore, teachers had been allocated from the SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities)and Lifelong Learning teams, together with additional business support to process applications. There was a protocol in Sheffield that children could return to school within 12 weeks of parents choosing for them to be home educated. There was also a concern as regards home educated children in relation to the timing of the school census of numbers of children on roll. The census outcomes affected funding for schools and the Council, and there would potentially be reduced resources available to support the children in school, if a parent chose to return their child to school following a period of home education. It might also be difficult for children to return to oversubscribed schools at a later date.  These concerns were being taken up with the Government in order that such problems might be alleviated.




With regard to mental health in school settings and whether there was adequate and timely support and what would improve it, there were issues of long waiting times for access to assessments for children at Ryegate Children’s Centre.




Questions were asked as to whether parents were aware of the available foodbanks and how they might be encouraged to access them, and also with regard staff absence and remote learning and what planning and preparation was taking place.




There were often initial announcements made by the Government, with full guidance to follow, and this was sometimes too late to allow for proper planning. There were issues in making sense of the guidance, although there was support locally and collectively, and it was an additional issue for school leaders. There was not, in the generic guidance, an appreciation of children with particular needs, including medical needs and the public health team had supported schools with interpreting the guidance. It had been difficult to manage transport for children who were unable to wear a mask or to socially distance. It was also challenging to reassure staff with health needs that the measures in place were to help protect them. There was sometimes inconsistency between different sets of guidance, such as for schools and care settings.




Regarding end of year outcomes and planning in relation to exams and assessment and what discussions were being held with the government in that regard, there were regular conversations with the DfE. The situation with regard to exams was less than satisfactory. Secondary schools had been affected differently during the pandemic, with some having experienced no cases of Covid-19 to date and others having been affected by repeated incidences affecting pupils. There had also been the apparent decision to permit headteachers to make decisions about which pupils should be sent home in the context of Covid-19. These factors led to a variation in provision both in Sheffield, regionally and nationally. The case was being put to the DfE that that was not clarity about how exams and standardised assessments could be equitable, given that variation. A further report could be provided to the Committee on that matter.




In relation to whether there was consensus as to what form exams and assessment might take in 2021, there was a degree of unanimity on the issue in the City, and it was noted that Scotland had provided a clearer steer for schools. Equity was the key issue, and it was likely that different forms of assessment would be employed. However, there was a concern that a timely decision had not been made by the Government. Sheffield schools had been working with a national campaign entitled ‘Worth Less’, which had campaigned in relation to school funding, and had broadened its remit to include other issues.




With regard to school transport and the maintenance of bubbles formed in schools, it was considered that students attending a special school, for example, might come from different geographical areas and whilst they may be in one bubble in school, that would change when they travelled to and from school. Whilst the matter had been considered by Transport Services, because of the logistics and cost, the bubbles established within school could not necessarily be replicated for school transport. However, schools had worked with Transport Services in relation to providing visual support, transport staff wore masks and school start and finish times were staggered. This was an issue for special schools and in mainstream schools. In secondary schools, and on public transport, students wore masks. However, some students were exempt, and that was being partially addressed in special schools by encouraging students that were able to tolerate wearing a mask, to do so. For mainstream schools, children could sit in zones on transport. The ability of headteachers to directly influence what happened once students were on transport, and to enforce pupil bubbles or social distancing, was probably relatively limited. It had not been possible to provide sufficient transport capacity to maintain pupil bubbles on transport, for larger secondary schools for example.




As regards broadband access and laptops, the DfE laptop scheme used an algorithm to determine laptop allocation to schools and also the likely broadband connectivity in homes. Some laptops included a wifi dongle to enable connectivity remotely at home and others did not. Some Trusts had, from their own resources, provided laptops and devices for pupils. Out of 1800 laptops allocated, approximately 1700 were based on whether a child had an allocated social worker and 50 were for year 11 students (based on eligibility for free school meals). From September, eligibility for Year 3 and above was based upon eligibility for free school meals and schools asking parents about the level of technology kit they had available.




It had been found that access to devices, rather than wifi, was a barrier to remote learning, and some schools had purchased devices and others had been obtained through the DfE scheme for students to use in school and at home. There had been some issues concerning the wifi codes provided by the DfE which might not work in some areas of the City, and schools had purchased dongles and cards to enable access in such circumstances. A blended mix of physical and virtual learning resources was required and consideration also had to be given to the capacity of parents and families to support learning.




In response to questions concerning the role of OfSTED and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in inspecting schools and the additional related pressure on schools, the Committee was informed that the Council did provide challenge to the DfE in a number of areas. It was not thought that the use of OfStTED inspections would be a useful intervention, and there were other means of gathering information from schools concerning the response to the Covid-19 pandemic without using OfSTED inspections. The issue of HSE visits was also raised, and it had been pointed out that the HSE was a relevant statutory body. 




OfSTED activity to examine the effectiveness of Covid-19 related school operations was continuing in some schools in the City that were within the OfSTED window and this did create additional demands. It was important that the focus was on keeping schools open, quality of teaching and pupil attendance and maintaining day to day school for children.




It had been possible for schools to provide hot meals, and where it was not possible, that had been due to operational issues. The Council’s partner, Taylor Shaw had provided meals to schools, even if it had not been contracted to do so, such as in an Academy Trust, where senior leaders had undertaken basic food hygiene training to enable them to serve food.  Cold meals were sometimes provided due to operational issues.




The ambition was to widen the provision of hot meals, although it was the case that kitchen staff might also be affected by outbreaks of Covid-19 and may have to self-isolate. Such staff were also vulnerable because of the proximity to others in which they worked. There were also logistical matters to consider to maintain the integrity of pupil bubbles, and which meant that dinner times had become longer and this affected the ability to serve hot meals in some schools. In other schools, pupils ate in classrooms. Taylor Shaw had worked with schools to facilitate the provision of hot meals, which might be served in classrooms using biodegradable containers. There was also additional cleaning to be done after meals were eaten.




With regard to the three possible ways of schools reporting cases of Covid-19 and in response, it was stated that the situation was not ideal and parents themselves could also report cases by using the NHS Coronavirus 119 telephone number and advice to parents may be inconsistent with the advice that a school was given. A particular concern related to the potential for headteachers being put in the position of having to make their own decisions in relation to reported cases of Covid-19, and representations were being made to the DfE in that regard.




Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) continued to be processed and legislation earlier in the pandemic for more flexible timescales had now ceased. In September, more applications were completed than new ones received. In respect of Ryegate Children’s Centre, concerns outlined at this meeting as regards commissioning of mental health services would be looked at further with commissioners, and an update would be provided for this Committee.




Educational Psychologists were able to make on site visits, where that was appropriate. There were also concerns about access to speech and language therapists not making visits to schools, and that issue was being picked up with the relevant commissioners.   




As regards elective home education, many parents made a positive choice about elective home educating their child and did so for a number of reasons. At this time, there was a large number of parents citing concerns about Covid-19 as being part of the reasons for home education. Balanced advice was provided to parents and the 12-week time period in which they might return their child to school was also made clear, and it was important to make sure parents were well informed in relation to home education.




In relation to continuation of learning and assessment and examinations, and in being able to look at students’ work during the year, there had been some gaps in students’ education and it had become apparent that the mental health of students had been affected by missing several months’ work and attempting to catch up, and also because of periods of self-isolation for some students.  Primary schools would most likely wish for teacher assessment to be recognised as a valid method of measuring progress for the remainder of the year, instead of Key Stage 2 SATS. For Year 1 children, phonic tests had been delayed until December, and might not be considered a priority at this time. There had been an effect on children in relation to their reading, which was an example of how pupils would need to catch up in other areas of learning. For secondary schools, alternative plans would be required in relation to how exams might be carried out and which were equitable and also, if that was not possible, clarity as regards assessment and collecting evidence, particularly for Year 11 and Year 13 students.




As regards free school meals during school holidays, the Council had requested the Government to extend free school meals into the holidays. However, for the upcoming half term holiday, and at this point, it was not the case that free school meals would be provided.




In relation whether pupils would be able to catch up, in the first half term, schools were assessing children young to ascertain their attainment and whether there had been any effect on their progress.  There would be associated programmes of study and schools would be allocated funding from the catch-up programme and sharing of best practice was enabled through Learn Sheffield. There was also work with other organisations, including the Education Endowment Fund, to ensure that support was targeted appropriately. There was a mixed picture as to whether students had fallen behind with learning, and that might depend upon a range of factors, such as learning from home during the summer term and resources to which they had access.




As regards city-wide data regarding absences and attendance and whether contingency plans had been developed should schools have to close, attendance data was produced via an online portal introduced by the DfE on which schools completed a daily return, which was not mandatory. A local collection system had been in place prior to May, which it was considered was more accurate than the DfE portal. The DfE portal relied upon the manual input of data. The Council data team checked the DfE data to identify anomalies and errors. It had been suggested by the Council to the DfE that the management information systems used by schools could utilised for data collection purposes.




With respect to operating models, monitoring the most effective ways of moving students around schools and good practice in secondary schools operating larger bubbles, some case studies were being developed with secondary schools so that best practice might be shared.




Members of the Committee also made comments in respect of:-




·            encouraging parents to wear face coverings wherever possible;




·            an appreciation of the difficult challenges facing schools and the work that schools did working together effectively, as demonstrated during the period of the pandemic; and




·            it was positive that schools were looking at best practice as regards running larger schools




RESOLVED: That the Committee:-




(a)      thanks the School Leaders - Cathy Rowland (Dobcroft Infant School), Sacha Schofield (Bents Green Special School), Chris French (Mercia Learning Trust), Joanne Bradshaw (Sheffield South East Trust) and Andrew Jones (Interim Director of Education and Skills (Sheffield City Council)), Stephen Betts (Chief Executive, Learn Sheffield) for attending the meeting and for their contributions;




(b)      further, thanks everyone working in schools in the City for the collaborative and co-operative way in which they have come together during the Covid-19 pandemic to ensure schools are open, regardless of the type of school or sector in which they educate and support children and young people in Sheffield;




(c)      requests the Executive Director, People Services, to examine the following matters which were of particular concern to this Committee and to report to this Committee accordingly:-




(i)             clarity in relation to the examinations and assessment for pupils and students in primary and secondary schools, most notably for those at Key Stages 4 and 5;




(ii)            with regard to Ryegate Children’s Centre:-




§   to provide an understanding of the current situation with regard to the Centre, given the concerns expressed to the Committee about substantial waiting lists and the potential effect on access to healthcare services to children and young people with physical and mental health needs, whilst noting that this matter is also included on the Committee’s Work Programme;




§   that all Members of the Council be informed of the situation as regards the Centre accordingly;




(iii)          that access for children and young people to speech and language services, and matters affecting special schools at this time, be further examined, and that all Members of the Council be informed about what was happening as appropriate;




(iv)          the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on elective home schooling and related issues affecting schools, including those relating to school places and resources, which might be further affected by increased numbers of children educated at home;




(v)           provision of free school meals in school holiday periods and access by families to services provided by food banks in the City;




(vi)          the accuracy of data collected by the DfE relating to attendance and absence in schools and the prospect of using local collection of absence rates;




(vii)         to examine plans relating to schools to deal with potential increased staff absences due to Covid-19;




(viii)       further information be provided to this Committee as regards access to digital learning and resources and digital exclusion of children in the context of Covid-19; and




(ix)          concerns about the speed of assessment of ‘catch up’ for pupils and the delivery of the school curriculum; and




(d) on its behalf, requests the Chair and Deputy Chair to write to the Sheffield Members of Parliament on a number of issues of concern, namely OfSTED and the need for visits to schools at this point, free school meals during holidays and exams in 2021; and




(e)      requests the Policy and Improvement Officer to provide the information considered at this meeting, and concerning the return to school in the pandemic and schools and the webcast of this meeting of the Committee to all Members of the Council, for information.





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