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Letter to parents and carers 26 May 2020

Dear Parents/Carers

I have been waiting before writing to you in the hope that, by now, we might have had a much clearer picture of where we were going, nationally, in terms of the eventual re-opening of schools, both in the UK and here in Wales.

Unfortunately, the picture is still not clear.  That does not mean that I cannot offer a few thoughts as to what might happen next, and also reassure you that we are actively planning for a return to school, whenever that might happen.  I can also provide you with an update about the progress we are making with online learning and the process of arriving at Centre Assessed Grades for our external examination candidates.

Online Learning

This is going well overall.  Using Google Classroom, many of our pupils are accessing work that teachers are setting for them and teachers are responding to it wherever they can.  Of course, you can never please everybody.  Some parents feel we should be doing more, although it is fair to say that there have been some awkward moments as parents, on investigation, have found out that their children have not always been completely honest about the work they have (or have not) completed!   Be that as it may, I think we are now going to have to take a closer look at exactly who is doing what and our Learning Leaders are leading on this.  Our fear throughout this time, if I am honest, is that the learners most in need of our support are often the ones least likely to seek it.  This remains a concern for us, but it is genuinely difficult to regulate the work of disaffected or disadvantaged pupils from a distance. 

I have said before, and repeat it here, that you are crucial to this process.  Pupils have not been in school for over two months now and they may well be off for some time yet.  It doesn’t take a genius to work out that some pupils are going to be at a serious disadvantage upon their eventual return if they sit back and do nothing in the meantime.  We can encourage and support all we like as a school, which is what I believe we are doing, but we cannot ultimately compel pupils to work when they are not physically present with us.  That is ultimately something we have to achieve in partnership with you. 

If you are experiencing particular difficulty with getting your son or daughter to engage with work, or if there are difficulties personal to you and your family that you think we need to know about, please get in touch with us, via your child’s Learning Leader.  It’s what we are here for.

Please be realistic about what teachers can actually achieve at this time.  Some teachers have told me how they have spent maybe half an hour or more, remotely, explaining something to an individual pupil or assisting them in some way.  This is really laudable but, realistically, we have to remember that an Olchfa teacher typically teaches between 180 and 300 pupils across all their classes.  You can do the maths as well as I can here.  Half an hour of individual ‘help’ for each of 180 pupils is 90 hours per week (nearly three times the average working week), and that’s if the teacher does nothing else like setting work, marking it, looking after their own kids at home or helping with the Emergency Childcare Setting.  It just isn’t possible I’m afraid.  So we need to be realistic at this time.

Some of you will be wondering why we haven’t gone more down the road of direct online teaching, sometimes called synchronous learning.  The answer is straightforward, I’m afraid.  At the time of writing this, neither Welsh Government nor the teaching unions favour this approach due to significant safeguarding concerns.  I am hopeful that some way will be found through this soon, as there is a lot of potential gain in it provided it can be organised safely. In the meantime, we will carry on using Google Classroom and providing personal feedback etc.

Centre Assessed Grades

We are now in the final stages of finalising Olchfa’s returns to the WJEC.  This has been a long process and an agonising one, as teachers wrestle with the rank orders for each subject that the WJEC requires us to produce.  We are trying to be as ethical as we can in the middle of all of this.  I will be honest with you here.  We are in the middle of a national crisis and subject to events way beyond our control.  Therefore, pupils in Years 11, 12 and 13 should get no less than they would have got had his crisis not happened.  However, it is arguable that they should not get more than they deserve either.  The ‘right’ outcome would be that they should get results that are as close to what they would have got had this crisis not occurred.  They should get results that are, as far as it is possible to be, ‘fair’ ones.

I need to remind you at this point that the WJEC has been very clear that teachers are not, under any circumstances, allowed to tell pupils what grades the school has awarded them.  I know that this will frustrate some of you, but the logic of the exam board is that we simply cannot have a situation in August where (some) disappointed pupils, or their parents, try to apportion blame, either to individual teachers,  to the school, or to the exam board itself.  In the same way, therefore, the exam board will not be revealing whether or by how much it ‘scaled’ results in a particular subject in a particular school, depending on whether the school’s judgements seemed generous or harsh.  Please do not embarrass teachers by asking them to reveal the school’s final grades for your son or daughter.  It cannot and will not happen under any circumstances.

Finally, I want to remind you that the school’s ‘Centre Assessed Grades’ need to be backed up by some evidence.  They can’t be plucked out of the air for any individual pupil.  Put simply, the strongest evidence will be work done during the course of their GCSE or Post 16 studies, any assessments or mock exams that they have taken and so on.  The exam board has also indicated that it will be looking at some ‘historical’ data such as national literacy and numeracy test scores or, in the case of sixth formers, their GCSE results. We need to be fair and realistic here. Teachers cannot second guess how hard a pupil might have worked during April and May.  They can only go on historical, ‘real’ evidence.  It is obvious, therefore, that this ‘system’ of awarding grades will tend to favour pupils who have worked consistently, rather than those who left it till the end.  Please remember that Olchfa did not choose this system.  We just have to work with it.

Re-opening School

The truth is that I do not know a great deal more than some of you do, if you have been listening to the news, both at UK and Wales level. It is now clear that there will be a partial return to primary schooling in England on June 1st.  Secondary schools in England will begin to establish physical ‘contact’ with pupils in Years 10 and 12, beginning on June 15th.

Wales is behind this curve, although it is not clear by how much.  I am hearing some rumours around primary schools reopening sometime before the end of term, but the position around secondary schools is less clear.  I do know that, despite the lack of a firm date, there has been considerable debate around what a ‘return’ to secondary schooling might look like. There have also been reassurances, genuine in my view, that Wales will not signal a return to schooling until it is considered safe to do so.

Clearly, the idea of the 15 pupil ‘bubble’ that you may have picked up on the news at various points is mainly a primary school concept.  Under this model social distancing is suspended, in effect, within each ‘bubble’ and the ‘bubbles’ isolate from each other.  Of course, in this context, the 15 pupils and their teacher remain together throughout.  This is not a model that will work in a secondary school, for obvious reasons.

The debate around secondary schools is, therefore, around what a return will actually look and feel like.  Specifically, there is debate around who should return to school and when.   Should it be specific groups of pupils?  These could be specific year groups, or disadvantaged children, or the children of key workers etc.

Personally, and I stress this is a personal view, the ‘least worst’ of all the bad options, if you like, is a return for all pupils, so as to eliminate unfairness.  However, before you take a sharp intake of breath, I need to say that a ‘return’ would actually mean a fractional return for all.  You can do the maths here.  We have come to the conclusion that social distancing will only allow ‘teaching’ groups of 6-8 pupils at the most.  Since most of our classes have over 25 pupils, we are talking about a multiplier of at least 4 here, even if (and it’s a big if) a timetable could be constructed that matched the efficiency level of our current one.  And so, Olchfa would need at least four times as many staff to deliver a full curriculum to all.  Following that logic through, we could maybe, at most, offer pupils the equivalent of one day a week of formal schooling.  This might be a single day, or two days per fortnight, or two mornings a week and so on.  We might have to stagger start and finish times, shorten breaks, limit movement and consider whether we can safely serve any food.  We will also have to ensure that we can clean every venue to the required standard to comply with the standards we set in relation to Covid 19.  Suffice it to say that I will not be agreeing to any opening of our school until we can be confident that we have minimised the risk from Covid 19 as far as it is practicably possible.

One of the problems that we face at this time is that civil servants do not really understand schools.  That’s not their fault; it’s just how it is.  As a result, they do not always see the problems that flow from some of their strategies. For example, if you take my scenario above, with pupils being taught about a day a week, things seem, on the surface, to be practicable, just.  So far, so good.  However, how does a teacher who will, under that arrangement, be teaching pretty much a full timetable (albeit to much smaller groups of pupils) find the time to set work for all of his or her pupils to fill the rest of their time?  And who will run the Childcare Settings if teachers and support staff are back to a ‘new normal’ life of teaching?  And so it goes on. 

So what are we doing at Olchfa to prepare for this?  We are examining closely all of our teaching spaces to see which ones can be safely used as teaching spaces.  We are looking at our deep cleaning processes and ensuring that they will be fit for purpose.  We are looking at ways in which we might provide for an amended day, to incorporate different start and finish times for different pupils.  We are looking at the issue of pupil movement around the school, if any. We are looking at the issue of food provision and whether or not it is safe.  We are looking at toilets and the whole issue of hygiene routines.

I could go on and on here, but I hope you see the message that lies underneath all of this.  We will return when we think it is safe to do so.  That’s because I have, from the start, kept the safety of our pupils and our staff at the front of my mind.  I continue to do so.  It’s difficult.  I know there are many compelling reasons why we need to get kids back to school, particularly the vulnerable ones.  We actually want them back as soon as we can get them back. However, I also know that, since I last wrote to you, members of staff have lost people they know or were close to, to this terrible disease, and I’m sure, sadly, that some of you will be in the same position.  You know, through bitter personal experience, what Covid 19 is capable of.  Therefore, these are not easy balances to strike.  I hope you know me well enough to know that I will not do anything that I consider will expose any member of the school community to an unacceptable level of risk.  That’s quite a high bar, but I think it’s the right one.  We cannot be 100% safe when we reopen, but we must be as safe as it is possible to be.

Finally, as always, I’m hoping with all my heart that you are safe and well.  If you’re anything like me, you are experiencing a real roller-coaster of emotions, some days feeling upbeat and the next inexplicably low or jaded.  Who could expect any different?  Years ago, during one of my lowest moments at Olchfa, a colleague just gave me the simplest words; ‘this too shall pass’.  And, over the years, I have learned that things do indeed pass and a new, better day dawns again.  So, look after yourselves and your loved ones, follow advice (unless you are a special adviser…….!) and just do the best you can.  Nobody can ask for more.

With sincerest good wishes


Hugh Davies