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Headteacher says social distancing in schools is simply impossible

Britain’s ‘strictest headteacher’ has today issued a stark warning that social distancing is ‘simply impossible’ in schools. 

Katharine Birbalsingh, the formidable head of the Michaela Community School in Brent, north London, said it was a ‘lie’ that safe distancing within educational settings was possible.  

Ms Birbalsingh’s riposte came in response to the suggestion that children could soon return to lessons, in the wake of Denmark becoming the first country in Europe to reopen schools.

Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, she said: ‘We’re considered to be the strictest school in Britain and even we would find it impossible.’

The headteacher also warned ‘chaos would ensue’ if supply teachers were brought in to replace full-time staff members who were still self-isolating.  

Katharine Birbalsingh, the head of the Michaela Community School in Brent, north London. She is pictured here on Good Morning Britain last February  

Teachers demand access to PPE before returning to work amid fears of being ‘bounced back for the sake of industry’ 

School staff have demanded access to personal protective equipment against coronavirus before returning to work amid fears of being ‘bounced back for the sake of industry’. 

The NEU has now written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson asking for the Government to urgently share its modelling, evidence and plans for reopening schools.

Maddie Ross, 24, a teacher at a primary school in Wolverhampton, said all teachers would be at risk if schools reopened too early because of the difficulty of imposing social isolation rules on small children.

Miss Ross, from West Yorkshire, said: ‘It should be secondary school children that go back before primary, surely, because primary school children are going to be a lot more difficult to control, in terms of if we still need to keep two metres apart.

‘There’s no way you can get primary school children to do that, they’d be touching each other within the first few seconds of walking through the gate.’  

Bryony Baynes, 58, head teacher at Kempsey Primary School in Worcester, agreed that social distancing is ‘pretty much impossible’ with young children.  

Mrs Baynes added her ‘biggest frustration’ in dealing with the coronavirus crisis at her school has been the lack of information, support and personal protective equipment from the Government.

She said: ‘I feel really frustrated that the teachers seem to have been forgotten in all this.

‘We haven’t been offered tests. We haven’t been offered a great deal of guidance or advice or support, and we’re just expected to find our own way.

‘As a head, that’s giving me so much anxiety and stress, it’s worse than having a visit from Ofsted.’

Jackie Schneider, a part-time music teacher at a primary school in the London borough of Merton, said an early return to schools ‘could undo all the good work people have done by locking down’.

Ms Schneider, 56, who has taught at her school for 30 years, said: ‘I would be happy to go back if that’s what the science says, but I would not be happy to be bounced back for the needs of industry.

‘When parents wave their kids goodbye every morning and send their kids to me, I want to be able to look the parent in the eye and say, I have done everything I can to keep your child safe.’ 

Ms Birbalsingh’s school hit the headlines in recent years for giving pupils detention for slouching in their chairs, using a mobile phone or wearing make-up or jewellery. 

She spoke today after nurseries, kindergartens and primary schools welcomed returning students in Denmark yesterday – with France set to follow suit next month.

This comes as ministers meet this morning to agree to prolong the social distancing controls announced on March 23, amid signs the epidemic in the UK is beginning to peak. 

Schools outside coronavirus epicentres including London and Birmingham could reopen next month under plans being considered by ministers, according to The Times. 

But Ms Birbalsingh warned: ‘The fact is, social distancing in schools is simply impossible.

‘We’re considered be the strictest school in Britain and even we would find it impossible – we’ve got corridors that are just over one metre in width, so the children when passing one another obviously touch each other, when they’re in the classrooms coming in and out.

‘First of all classrooms are small in all schools so the children are all sat right next to each other – they have to hand out books and pens and paper when they get up off their desk to walk out the classroom they touch each other they are also children we need to remember – reception children are all going to be together the younger they are the more difficult it is.

‘Let alone the physical implications around all this in terms of making that work.

‘For me if government want schools to reopen whenever they do and I understand that schools cannot stay closed for ten months…and they will open at some point.’

She added it was a ‘lie’ that safe distancing would be possible.  

‘But what I don’t want is for people to perpetuate the lie – and it is a lie – that social distancing is possible. 

‘It just isn’t and that’s fine if they say look we understand that there’s a risk and we know what we’re asking you teachers and this is what we need you to do – we need you to do your duty and go out and do this for the country, it’s in order to jump start the economy and people need to go out and get their children into schools.

‘That’s what needs to be said.

‘What shouldn’t be said is what’s told that’s is absolutely fine we can do social distancing in schools, and we pretend. It’s the pretense that I can’t bear – that social distancing is possible.’

She also said students would be likely to misbehave if supply teachers were brought in. 

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson (pictured outside Downing Street yesterday), has expressed concerns about the effect of school shutdowns on pupils’ progress as Cabinet tensions grow over the length of the lockdown.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson (pictured outside Downing Street yesterday), has expressed concerns about the effect of school shutdowns on pupils’ progress as Cabinet tensions grow over the length of the lockdown.

Michaela Community: Life at Britain’s strictest school 

The Michaela Community School sits in a deprived area of London and the majority of pupils come from families so poor they qualify for the pupil premium grant.

Nearly half speak English as a second language.

Despite only opening in 2014, the school has already sparked protests from parents and unions due to the teaching methods.

Ms Birbalsingh claims it is the more middle-class parents that have a problem with the strict nature of the school and added they would ‘balk at the level of discipline’ at the school.

Students eat vegetarian school meals and older pupils are expected to do 90 minutes of homework a night.

The uncompromising rules have seen many parents pull their children out but, the school claims its methods are working and pupils do, on average, twice as well as those in other comprehensives.    

She added: ‘The other thing to remember is from the point of view of a headteacher, if you are sending home all your staff who have underlying issues. if you have to send home staff who have a cough; you are probably going to have fewer than half your staff in your school.

‘So if you have half your staff in then how are you filling your classrooms with teachers – you can’t.

‘So you have got to think about the kind of chaos that ensues in schools when the children don’t have their own teacher you have cover teachers well we all know what you used to do when you had a supply teacher at school – remember?’ 

Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the teachers union NASUWT, told the programme that any decisions in relation to fully or partially reopening schools, ‘must be guided by the overriding public health concerns.’

He added it was important to ensure teachers, support staff, but also children and young people and their families are protected from the spread of the virus.

He said: ‘Government has tended to dismiss the relevance of PPE in educational settings. Access to gloves, aprons, face masks is absolutely essential. 

‘Social distancing is a major challenge in most educational settings. What constitutes safe social distancing and how that’s practiced, the government has not been particularly clear about that.’

He also suggested schools ‘may need to be remodelled’ with fewer children on site at any one time.   

Meanwhile, Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London, who is advising ministers, said ‘significant’ social distancing will most likely be needed until there is a vaccine.

He told the Today programme that as restrictions are eased, more testing will be needed to isolate individual cases and trace their contacts to keep future outbreaks under control.

‘Because without that, our estimates show we have relatively little leeway,’ he said.

‘If we relax measures too much then we’ll see a resurgence of transmission.

‘What we really need is the ability to put something in their place. If we want to open schools, let people get back to work, then we need to keep transmission down in another manner.

‘And I should say, it’s not going to be going back to normal. We will have to maintain some form of social distancing, a significant level of social distancing, probably indefinitely until we have a vaccine available.’ 

Professor Russell Viner, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said he believed school reopening could take place early in any exit strategy. 

The Cabinet is said to be split between ‘hawks’ who want the lockdown to be lifted in weeks and ‘doves’ who believe it should last until Whitsun at the end of May.

A Government source said there was no ‘table-thumping’ going on, but added of Mr Williamson: ‘He’s Education Secretary – he’d, of course, prefer schools to be open. But it’s not his choice. He is worried about all children and how they are going to do. There is no replacement for children going along to classes under the supervision of teachers who know them.

‘However, schools will only be opened when it is safe to do so.’

GCSE and A-Level pupils ‘will not be able to appeal against exam grades this year… and will be told to RE-SIT tests in the autumn if they are unhappy’

By Josh White Education Reporter

Pupils who should have been sitting GCSEs and A-levels this summer will not be able to challenge the grades their teachers give them, proposals released last night reveal.

They will have no way of appealing the ‘professional judgment’ of their teachers as it would be ‘inappropriate, ineffective and unfair’, Ofqual said in a consultation document.

Their only option if they feel they were unfairly graded will be to sit a fresh exam in the autumn.

Appeals will only be allowed to be made by schools on technical grounds, the exams regulator said.

Pupils who should have been sitting GCSEs and A-levels this summer will not be able to challenge the grades their teachers give them, under new proposals. Image posed by model

Pupils who should have been sitting GCSEs and A-levels this summer will not be able to challenge the grades their teachers give them, under new proposals. Image posed by model

The news is likely to exacerbate concerns about the accuracy of teacher assessment and whether pupils such as those with behavioural problems could be unfairly treated. An analysis of nearly 20,000 predicted grades across 22 subjects last year found that only 40 per cent of teachers’ estimates turned out to be accurate.

Of the 60 per cent that were wrong, 31 per cent were too generous and 29 per cent too negative.

Research has also shown poorer children are more likely to suffer from teachers’ low expectations than their wealthier peers.

Yesterday’s document states: ‘There is no common benchmark or standard against which teachers’ professional judgments, or a centre’s evaluation and use of those judgements in centre assessment grades, can be evaluated.’

Therefore the regulator argues ‘that to provide for a review or appeals process premised on scrutiny of the professional judgements… would be inappropriate, ineffective and unfair in the current exceptional circumstances’.Instead it proposes that only schools can appeal on the grounds ‘that the wrong information was used to generate calculated grades or that a mistake was made when the exam board standardised the grade or communicated the grades to the centre’.

It also acknowledged the system could be open to abuse.

It said: ‘We recognise the possibility that some centres, pupils and others may try to exploit the exceptional arrangements, including by seeking inappropriately to influence centre assessment grades.

‘We expect exam boards to make sure the arrangements they have in place to comply with our current rules are flexible enough to allow this to be investigated as potential malpractice, leading to the potential imposition of sanctions.’

Earlier this month, Ofqual said teachers will need to decide what grades the 1.3million pupils whose GCSE and A-level exams have been cancelled due to coronavirus ‘were most likely to get if teaching, learning and exams had happened as planned’.

But they will not have to submit any evidence to show how they reached their decisions.

Before the grades are confirmed, exam boards will run a ‘standardisation’ process to root out teachers trying to ‘game’ the system by inflating results, or those that are overly harsh.

When allotting grades, teachers will be expected to form a ‘holistic’ view, even taking into account complex factors like pupils who may be ‘crammers’ and excel at the last minute.

Ofqual said results should be sent to candidates by August if not ‘a little earlier’. It also said pupils who had planned to sit one or more GCSEs a year early should also get allotted grades, reversing their earlier position.

The consultation is open until Wednesday April 29.