Peterborough schools chief believes ‘normality’ is returning but warns challenges remain

The head of education in Peterborough believes “normality” is starting to return to the classroom, but warned challenges remain.
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Jonathan Lewis believes city schools will be well prepared for all students to return on March 8 and that there is “light at the end of the tunnel” after a remarkably tough 12 months.

But he said the road map is not straightforward, with challenges for some secondary schools over testing and the possibility that remote learning may continue due to staff shortages.

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Speaking to the Peterborough Telegraph, the service director for education at Peterborough City Council and Cambridgeshire County Council said: “We’ve been over all the guidance and are briefing the heads on the changes.

Jonathan LewisJonathan Lewis
Jonathan Lewis

“There are a few changes, for instance the testing in secondary schools is slightly different. It’s going to be a challenge for some of the larger secondary schools to do some of that testing, and wearing face masks in secondary schools has been tightened a little bit, but we’ll be ready.

“We want children back in school and will encourage parents to get their children back.

“The environment’s we’ve proven have been safe - we’ve not had many challenges. There have been Covid cases but they’ve all been dealt with appropriately and we’ve got good structures in place to deal with it.

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“We’ve got two weeks notice so that should give us enough time to plan and prepare for it, and the feedback I’ve had from heads is they are very pleased children are going back. Normality is what everyone wants and this is the first step towards it.”

The Government announced on Monday that for the full re-opening of schools:

. Secondary school pupils will now be expected to wear masks in classrooms as well as in communal areas, at least until Easter when the measure will be reviewed

. Attendance back in school is now mandatory across all phases, with local authorities allowed to issue fixed penalty notices

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. All secondary students will be offered three lateral flow tests in school, three to five days apart, before taking two at home each week

. All school staff will continue to take the tests twice a week at home

. Schools are required to provide remote education to pupils who are unable to attend school because they are vulnerable and shielding.

It has previously been announced that exams will not be taking place this summer, with pupils instead receiving teacher-assessed grades.

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Mr Lewis, who will be writing to parents shortly, said: “The biggest challenge we probably face is a lot of people are shielding at the moment and we are seeing that list grow bigger. It’s not easy to bring other people into school to support and keep things going.

“We will have schools where there will be gaps in staff. We will do everything we can to cover them, but up until March 31 there is a risk that we may not be able to do everything in the same way.

“We might see some change in who teachers, or if we can’t get extra people we’ll have to make some decisions on remote learning.

“My focus is on keeping schools safe, and if we can’t do that because we don’t have enough adults, school doesn’t open or we don’t open up all the school.

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“That’s the one area that concerns me, but other than that this is what we did in September and teachers, support staff and headteachers know what to do. They know how to manage bubbles, they’ve got all the equipment they need, proper preventative measures are in place, and the success of that is the fact we’ve managed to keep cases relatively low in the city.”

While there is confidence about the full return of pupils, challenges remain, including catching up for lost learning, the mental health impact of lockdown and formal assessment for GCSE and A-Level pupils.

“What we learned from the first lockdown is that the majority of children catch up very quickly,” Mr Lewis, while highlighting one-to-one tuition which has been taking place locally, government promises of funding and work in Peterborough to support people suffering from bereavement or mental health struggles.

He added: “It’s probably going to take another six months for us to say ‘we understand what Covid has done’.

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“We’ve done lots of work and our schools are very aware of the mental health challenges and we will do everything we can to support them. The education psychologist team has been excellent supporting the children who are struggling and providing support to leaders as well.

“I’m just pleased there’s light at the end of the tunnel now. Great credit to the staff at schools involved because nobody would have predicted in the last 12 months what they’ve had to deal with.

“I just want to get children back in now, get some routine back into their lives and catch up where we need to catch them up.

“There are still uncertainties - teacher assessment is going to be key. We still don’t know about GCSE and A-Levels and how we will predict those results - there’s great uncertainty.

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“But the more we can create consistency for them the better, and I think the headteachers in this city have been amazing. They’ve responded incredibly well and worked so hard to get the right children in and support those who couldn’t come in.

“They’ve bent over backwards and it’s been a quite phenomenal achievement, and I include the CEOs of the academy trusts in this. It’s been a collective effort that I think will pay dividends.”

Asked how he believes the Government has responded to the pandemic with the education, Mr Lewis replied: “It’s an impossible task. When you consider education you have to consider it alongside the economy, health and all those other issues.

“I don’t think the guidance has been good or timely - there is a lot of expertise out there and if they had asked, we would have helped. So I think their communication hasn’t been great.

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“But it’s been pretty much an impossible task. How difficult is it to respond to a national pandemic that nobody has ever responded to? We can all moan about lack of laptops and resources, but we have had resources and they have tried to support, it’s just not been timely.

“Where Peterborough can hold it’s head up high is we’ve all worked together to make up for that deficiency and nobody has suffered as a result of government direction.”