North Primary School headteacher Alan Garnett reflects on a tumultuous week.

Wednesday, December 30

AT 4pm, the wait is over. The noise over what the Government will do about schools in the face of the exponential growth in the transmission rate has become deafening. Gavin Williamson announces in the Commons that not all primary schools will open for all their pupils next week. But schools have to wait until the list of areas is published on the Government website. An anxious wait ensues. At 5pm, the list appears and Essex has been split across the middle. The contingency framework comes into effect for South and Mid, meaning schools and colleges will be welcoming back children of critical workers and children classed as vulnerable. Colchester, Utttlesford and Tendring primary schools must open as normal.

Thursday, December 31

I SEND an email to Clare Kershaw, director of children’s services:

"I am writing to ask you if you are as concerned as I am that primary schools in Colchester are expected to open as normal next week. Nick Hulme, CEO of Colchester and Ipswich Hospitals, is imploring residents to stay indoors. I am pretty sure that Colchester infection rates are higher than in some other areas included in App A of the doc that was released yesterday tea-time. So, how can reopening primary schools in Colchester "protect the NHS"? If you do agree, are you and Mike Gogarty and ECC proposing to lobby Government about this? Once again, we are all having to respond at very short notice to Government orders."

Friday, January 1

I EMAIL all staff and governors:

"I hope you are well and have had a good break from school. I thought it might be helpful to keep you in the picture following the Government announcement on Wednesday afternoon. Basically, primary schools in Colchester Borough will open as planned. For us, that means a remote learning day on Monday and all children return to school on Tuesday. It is the same for Tendring and Uttlesford districts.

"Primary schools in other parts of Essex will only re-open for key workers’ children and the vulnerable like Lockdown 1 (my wife’s school is in this category and she spent all Wednesday evening and all day yesterday, leaving home at 7am and returning at 6pm, notifying parents, giving working parents as much notice as possible and getting her new bubbles set up!

"I did ask Clare Kershaw why Colchester is not included in this group. I have attached the detailed explanation from Mike Gogarty, head of Public Health Essex.

"I will send an email to all parents tomorrow reminding them of our protocols, also explaining why we will re-open fully - there are likely to be many parents anxious about the return."

Sunday, January 3

WHAT a day! This morning, Boris Johnson, interviewed live on BBC, informs the nation that it is safe for all children to attend school tomorrow. Lunchtime I get news that the largest teachers’ union, NEU, and the largest public sector union, UNISON, have advised their members to submit letters saying that it is not safe for them to work in school if all pupils return. They will work from home and they will work in school if opening is restricted to critical workers’ children and the vulnerable. Mid-afternoon, Essex County Council announce that it has asked the Government to place all of Essex under the contingency framework and instructed schools in the North East and West to offer remote learning on Monday, open for those limited numbers on Tuesday, and we must wait to see what the Government decide before we know what to do on Wednesday.

Monday, January 4

AT 5.30am, I record an interview with BBC Radio Essex for their breakfast show. I will be too busy to be interviewed live after 8am. Remote Learning has already been posted on our interactive platforms for all pupils. At 9am I hold a Zoom meeting with all staff and two governor representatives. We re-visit our Covid Risk Assessment and I invite all staff to share their concerns, identify which elements of the risk assessment need to be tightened and what measures need to be put in place to make the school safe enough to open for all pupils on Wednesday – if the Government reject ECC’s request.

The meeting was really helpful. Throughout the pandemic I have never sensed such anxiety and, in some cases, fear amongst the staff, as that I felt this morning. Six teachers and six support staff submitted section 44 letters. This was a difficult decision for them, causing much soul searching and loss of sleep. Day in, day out, these colleagues are totally committed to the children. To inform me that they might not do that from Wednesday was alien to them.

At 11am, in the conference call with Clare Kershaw, we are told that the DfE has acknowledged ECC’s request and a decision will be made tomorrow. Tomorrow! Unbelievable. Parents and staff need to know what they are preparing for. I ask Clare what ECC will do if the Government order our schools to open for all. A fair question to ask, but not one she was able to answer at that time.

I reflect on the morning staff meeting. It is clear to me that we can tighten our control measures in school but we cannot stop the virus being brought into the school – the transmission rate in the community is too high. Also, if we do have to open in full, I will not be able to open every class anyway because I will not have enough staff. I call my Chair of Governors and we convene an emergency governor meeting for 5pm.

Before the meeting has even started, Scotland announces it is going into full lockdown and the PM will be speaking to the country at 8pm. The indication is he will announce the same for England.


I explain to the governors that I do not think it is safe for the school to open fully on Wednesday and I had called the meeting because I did not want to wait any longer for the DfE to make their decision. Parents needed to know. The governors were in full support but we agreed that I should wait to hear the PM’s announcement. I prepare two emails.

At 8.45pm I emailed parents the following message:

"You may have seen the Prime Minister just announce that we must only open to children of critical workers’ and to vulnerable children.* This does not change our plans for tomorrow. Those parents have been informed of the arrangements. The remainder of the school population will access learning remotely. Staff will make phone calls to those families this week and interactive communication will be maintained through Tapestry or SeeSaw. Free school meals will be available for collection to those eligible who wish to have them. Parents doing the school run: please observe all social distancing rules in and around the school.Let us hope that this and the other measures announced will suppress and reduce the infection rate in the local community as quickly as possible.

"The PM did announce that Nurseries should open as normal. I have to say that caught me by surprise and I will explore the possibility for that to happen from Wednesday. I will email our Nursery families tomorrow."

Will we ever know if the DfE was going to agree to ECC’s request and whether ECC would have defied the DfE if it had been denied?

Tuesday, January 5

Seven year group bubbles open. Having two teachers per year group helps – one to teach in school, one to manage remote learning. Support staff help in school and will also help making phone calls to parents and children, just like in lockdown 1. Now that parents know this arrangement will continue until half-term I was anticipating a number of new requests for places. There were not many.

I meet with the Nursery teachers who were alarmed by the PM’s announcement. They see themselves as part of the school – which they are - and the risks are the same. I send an email to Nursery parents:

"I am writing to you, as promised, to tell you what is happening with the Nursery during lockdown. Judging from conversations some of you have had with the Nursery staff, you were as surprised as we were by the announcement Mr Johnson made last night, that Nurseries can remain fully open. I think many of you were also as shocked as we were too. The reason for limiting numbers in schools is to help to limit the transmission of the virus in the community – and Nursery children and staff count as community too! Therefore, for the safety of the children, staff and families, Nursery children will follow the same rules as the school children. That is: Remote learning for all children to be accessed via Tapestry, unless parents are critical workers without any other adult in the household to provide childcare, or if the child has an EHCPlan (a statement of additional and complex needs). The teachers will be phoning you this week to explain how the home learning will work."

Following queries from the LA and unions it has been confirmed by the DfE that school based Nurseries do have the discretion to open like the rest of their schools.

Day one of school lockdown: within a day staff have sorted rotas, got remote learning up and running and set up the Keeping In Touch network with families. A remarkable effort and a great achievement.

Wednesday, January 6

CLARE Kershaw sends all schools a letter to forward to parents. I email it with the following message.

"Please find attached a letter from Clare Kershaw, director of children's services. You will see that she talks about who could have a place in school, making it clear that it is not an entitlement and with one in 50 people in England now infected with Covid the need for as many of us to isolate in our homes and reduce transmission rates and so reduce pressure on our hospitals is ever greater. I will be frank with you, pretty much any working person could make a case that they meet the critical worker category. I exaggerate but you see my point. To offer places to every child meeting the criteria would make a nonsense of the purpose of the lockdown. In applying my duty of care to children and staff in school I am limiting bubble sizes to 12 - one bubble per year group. Thank you to those of you who are making sacrifices, keeping your children at home and juggling home learning and work. It is really appreciated. Teachers are sympathetic to the pressures you face in managing home learning - some have school age children themselves! We are pretty much full in some bubbles so all future requests may be added to our waiting lists…"

I spend the afternoon updating the risk assessment for Lockdown 3 and send it to staff for consultation.

Gavin Williamson announces in the House of Commons that exams will not be sat this summer. He also announces that parents can report schools to Ofsted if they are not happy with their children’s remote learning offer. Helpful.

Thursday, January 7

LOOKING at a Newsletter I sent out on day four of Lockdown 1, back in March. It contained advice to parents about managing home learning. I had forgotten how few children attended school in the beginning: eight on day three, 12 on day four. If we fill all our bubbles we will have 96 pupils, about 20% of our school population. But the pressure on schools to take more pupils is growing.

The Government announces a U-turn. School based Nurseries should open in full. That will not help bring the infection rate down. The Local Authority has said that it will support schools’ Risk Assessments. My risk assessment says bubbles of 12. I will not be opening the Nursery to all.

Friday, January 8

I EMAIL all staff and governors.

Well, it has been some week! It has been very stressful for all in our community. The governors have been resolute and they, and we, will have to remain strong over the coming weeks. You will be aware that there is huge pressure on schools to take more and more pupils back; pressure stoked by the DfE's ever-changing guidance. There is also another new directive for our Nursery to open in full. (A u-turn on a u-turn, I make that a 360!)

I am grateful to one of our parent governors who has shared the situation working parents face from employers who are now thinking that their employees can work as normal - even if at home- because the children are entitled to places. The media fuel this as well. Last night BBC Look East invited viewers to tell them of schools that denied their child a place.

I must, and will continue to, point out that the guidance still does say that parents should try to keep their children at home. Rightly so. How can we suppress transmission rates if we fill our classrooms?

Following my parentmail earlier in the week, some parents withdrew their requests, at inconvenience to themselves. I am very grateful to them. Now to home learning. I will be speaking to SMT about this on Monday. As far as I am concerned our approach is the right one. It is interactive and has built in flexibility, acknowledging the juggling acts that all parents perform daily. But, as Gavin Williamson has invited parents to report schools to Ofsted, we will just need to look at our offer and make sure we are compliant.

The year group newsletters I have seen are great (thanks) and I am looking forward to seeing the others - please remember to send them to all staff.

Regarding Keeping In Touch calls. If you have trouble making contact, please check with the teachers of the siblings (if they have any) before informing me…

6.00pm. I relax at home, at the end of an exhausting week. I look through the papers, two stories catch my eye: SAGE scientists say there are too many children in school, the lockdown may have to go on for longer; Ofsted have been inundated with letters from parents - praising the schools for their amazing efforts this week.