A schools leader in Harrogate has called for greater clarity on lockdown rules and guidance on who qualifies as a key worker as demand for classroom places remains high.
Richard Sheriff, CEO of the Red Kite Learning Trust (RKLT), said primary schools in particular have seen far more pupils attending in person than was the case in the first lockdown last year.
While he sympathised with parents trying to balance home schooling with work, he said the pressure on schools was significant – and could mean lockdown measures would not achieve the results needed for restrictions to be eased.
“There’s a big difference between what’s happening in secondary and primary schools. Although there’s some rise in secondary, it’s nothing like the increase in primary. This indicates it’s about the ability of parents to cope with younger children at home and carry on working, or going to work.”
The RKLT is a group of 13 schools, including five in the Harrogate district. As well as Harrogate Grammar School, there are four primaries: Coppice Valley, Oatlands Junior, Rossett Acre and Western. Other schools outside the group have also reported much higher attendance in the current lockdown than last year.
Mr Sheriff said headteachers generally knew which parents were key workers such as doctors, nurses, care workers and others. However, he said the government’s extensive list of jobs which qualify for key worker status meant many people could ask for their child to be given a place at school.
With most children being taught from home, he said teachers needed to spend significant time supporting online learning. However, the number of pupils in schools and the need to keep them in small bubbles was placing extra pressure on staff.
‘Goodwill of parents’
In some cases, headteachers have spoken to parents who had requested a place and found a way for the child to be kept at home. Mr Sheriff said:
“We’re managing with the goodwill of parents in not utilising that place. It’s parents’ goodwill towards schools that’s allowing us to continue to function.
“The pressure on primary teachers at the moment is really significant.”
“We have managed to talk to parents in a way that has got demand to a level we can meet. If there was significant change, if everybody sent children who could, it would be impossible. We would be swamped.”
Mr Sheriff said a review of what qualified as key worker status would help to ease the pressure, and would also help with enforcing lockdown measures. With so many children still in school, nurseries still open and cars on the roads, he said mixed messages were being sent, unlike in the first lockdown.
“This feels very different – almost that the schools are a signal to people about the level of activity. If schools were closed, the indication would be we lock up and stay home. Schools staying open is an indication, ‘it’s OK to be out and while I’m out, I’ll pop in to see so and so or have a chat at the school gates’.”
As well as reducing the number of jobs which qualified as key workers, Mr Sheriff said it would be helpful to have clearer guidance on the number of pupils who should be in schools. After the last lockdown, the government said 20% of students should be in at any one time, allowing schools to place limits on the number of pupils in their classrooms.
The RKLT, meanwhile, has prepared ways in which it could prioritise places in schools if needed. However, Mr Sheriff said with continued cooperation from parents and better guidance from the government, he hoped it would not be needed.
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