Coronavirus crisis test for education services

After becoming York’s Executive Member for Children’s Services in 2019, I immediately started on the task of putting together an improvement plan to deliver the best possible services for the future generations in York. But, eight months into the role, we found ourselves unexpectedly having to deal with a national emergency which would see both Children’s Services and Education facing an unprecedented crisis. Our administration’s response in York can be best characterised as converting what had seemed ‘impossible’ into ‘possible’.  Yet the contradictions, confusion and periods of silence from our Government, have turned the challenge of the last few months into something which will shape our services for years to come. 

Since the introduction of ‘lockdown’ in late March, York’s teachers and school staff have gone above and beyond to help young people, parents and carers through this incredibly difficult time.  Whilst our city’s 63 maintained schools, academies and special schools have been taking care of our most vulnerable students and the children of our amazing key workers, the Government has stoked-up the levels of confusion and distress through ever-changing guidance on safety regulations, timescales for re-opening as well as the support available for the most disadvantaged students. 

Like elsewhere in the country, teachers here in York have been doing fantastic work in incredibly difficult and unusual circumstances. I am proud of the support that they have given pupils throughout lockdown by providing stimulating online learning materials across all year groups.  Government was quick to note the importance of providing access to remote learning through initiatives like free laptops and a temporary data charge exemption on sites which provide vital education for children, yet it was months into lockdown before the most disadvantaged children would receive any such help. York’s first delivery of laptops, allocated under arbitrarily strict Government guidance, arrived at the end of June.  And we have yet to receive a response to a letter sent to the School’s Minister warning of the urgency of the provision of this help. 

Similarly, Children’s Social Services, caring for the most vulnerable children in the city, had to adapt quickly to working more remotely.  Because fewer face-to-face meetings could take place due to health guidance, our staff put incredible effort into finding ways to contact all children and families safely. With a growing increase in the demand for such services as lockdown progressed, staff have gone above and beyond in making sure no child in need is left behind at this challenging time. 

Throughout the pandemic, the authority has worked collaboratively with the city’s maintained schools and academies, enhancing the role of the ‘York Schools and Academies Board’ (YSAB) to a joint managing board. YSAB has played a crucial role by gaining close alignment between maintained schools and academies in operating the agreed arrangements.

Whilst local cooperation thrived, the Government crucially failed to proactively and constructively engage with education providers, local authorities and parents over the plans for ‘wider opening’ of schools.  The clearest sign of this came when, despite serious concerns over staff and pupil safety and logistical arrangements, Government announced that this would happen from 1st June.  Fortunately, the authority and YSAB had worked through risk assessments and operating plans with schools in great depth and all York’s schools were able to handle the process safely.

Since then we have seen frequently contradictory guidance be issued then re-issued, a major failure take place over examination award moderation and yet more U-turns over marking and grading after inspired campaigns by students across the country.  Despite this, the dedication that our school staff, caretakers, teachers, teaching assistants and governors have shown for the safety, education, wellbeing and health of pupils and school communities throughout this crisis has been extraordinary. 

Our team along with head teachers and senior leaders, continues to work hard to ensure that students can return to school safely in September. York Lib Dems also continue to call for more data and monitoring at a local level, along with effective and accurate testing, tracing and isolation. It is now crucial for the Government to acknowledge that it is through an effective localised approach that we can make sure the young people, who have been through some truly challenging times, can safely return to school once again. 

Whilst this challenge has provided our team with chances to learn and adapt, one thing seems to be clear to me – when the history of coronavirus is written, education provision will be among the top policy failures of this Government.

* Cllr Ian Cuthbertson is the Liberal Democrat Executive Member for Children, Young People and Education at the City of York Council

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  • Nigel Jones 25th Aug '20 - 5:23pm

    Ian, you are right to refer to “effective localised approach”. In Stoke on Trent, today’s paper describes a recent spike of the virus in one major part of the city; local people and council health teams chose to ignore government and do what they could in spite of limited information that should have been available centrally. They succeeded in controlling it and the writer now hopes something similar can happen when schools return.
    Last May on newsnight a former eminent government adviser (whose name I cannot remember), strongly advocated that government change its approach and gets Public Health England to work with local government officers, whose experience he said could be used as the key workers in dealing with the pandemic, advise them and then let them get on with the task. As late as July we heard of towns where the virus was increasing again and the local authorities were not even able to access the information they needed to deal with it.
    We as a party should not forget this and push hard next May in our election campaigns that Conservatives do not fully believe in local government or local democracy. When I was a councillor, some people did not trust local officials either, but the answer to that is more resources to employ good staff, share good practice and expert continuous professional training and development where needed.

  • I think that whatever efforts were made the reality is that the only way to ensure no child is left behind is to get them back into school with no ifs
    or buts.

    Home schooling will almost certainly have widened educational inequalities severely and had a worrying effect on child safeguarding.

    For the so called party of education there is only one possible stance – schools should have re-opened months ago and we should have been lambasting the government for their failure to deliver this.

  • Nigel Jones 25th Aug '20 - 5:41pm

    Marco, you are right to suggest more should have been done months ago. From 1 June it should have been possible for all schools to provide something for all their pupils until the end of summer term. Logistics would have meant not all could be in school simultaneously, but at least we could have ensured that everyone did not go so long out of school.
    The government blamed the teacher unions for obstruction, but the fact is that unions tried to engage with government from mid March onwards and were ignored until well into the month of May. The unions were speaking on behalf of parents as well as teachers, so it turned out, but proper engagement (together with a more effective localised approach to test and trace) could have changed attitudes and produced something more positive for June and July.

  • Scotland ahead yet again of the Westminster Tory incompetents. Scottish schools fully reopened on 11 August.

  • @David Raw which is err….when they would have under normal circumstances anyway, and therefore whilst praise worthy is not particularly an example of exceptional practice. Following the change of plan in June there has never been any intention for English schools to fully reopeni before September, so the difference between Scotland fully reopening in August and the proposed full reopening of English schools in September is no different to any past or future year.
    Now if English schools don’t fully reopen in September, you will have good reason to brag about the superior planning in Scotland and I will join you in full and frequent criticism of the U.K. government.

  • @ Nigel Jones

    They should have looked at the Netherlands in my view who I understand managed to reopen schools without imposing social distancing on young children which I believe would be quite cruel.

    So they could still look at what Dutch schools did to reopen and implement that.

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