Ten Things to look forward to in Autumn 2020

I have been writing these ‘things to look forward to’ posts at the start of each school term for a few years now. Of course, 2020 was the year everything changed. Like everyone else, I didn’t anticipate at the start of the year that we would all have to cope with lockdown and then adjust to living with COVID-19.

Nevertheless, after all the planning as schools prepare to return for the start of the new school year, there is still plenty for us to look forward to. Many events will have changed their format, but hopefully their essential character, and importance to schools, will remain the same.

Autumn Term Top Ten

  1. It may not feel like it, following a chilly August bank holiday weekend, but we still have a few weeks of (hopefully) warmer days and longer evenings before the nights really draw in. British Summer Time ends when the clocks go back on Sunday 25th October.
  2. It’s a new school year! Remember that feeling when you wrote your name on a new exercise book and opened the first fresh page full of possibilities. This year, more than ever before, children will have that same feeling. This is an opportunity to help them capture that feeling and go on to achieve great things!
  3. During the lockdown, many of us noticed the natural world more than ever before and took solace from spring blooms, birdsong and other signs of environmental renewal. Now we can take delight from the many signs that summer is turning into autumn. Which plants are coming into bloom now, later in the year? Which fruits are ripening and which leaves are changing colour? Which birds and other animals do you notice? Noting such changes helps us see that no two days are alike. You can find ideas on how to safely get more actively involved on this Wildlife Trusts’ webpage on Looking After Yourself and Nature.
  4. The annual Macmillan Coffee Morning is now in its 30th year and has become a firm fundraising fixture in many schools. This year it is taking a different format and is running throughout September. You can sign up and get more information and a fundraising kit here: World’s Biggest Coffee Morning 2020 and find further information on running safe, socially distanced events here: Coffee Morning Guidance.
  5. In the UK, October is Black History Month, which honours and celebrates the contribution Black Britons have made to our vibrant and diverse society. In recent months Black Lives Matter has drawn our attention to the work that remains to be done to tackle racism across British society, including decolonialising the curriculum. Perhaps this October can be a focus in addressing these issues not only for one month but all year round. You can find out more about events and activities throughout the year, and order a school resource pack, from blackhistorymonth.org.uk. There are also regional listings so you can look for events local to you.
  1. There are a wealth of other key dates, holidays and festivals you may wish to mark during the Autumn term, including:
  • Saturday 19 September Rosh Hashana
  • Tuesday 22 September Autumn Equinox
  • Monday 28 September Yom Kippur
  • 31 October Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve
  • 1 November All Saints’ Day
  • 2 November All Souls’ Day
  • Sunday 8 November Remembrance Sunday, with Armistice Day falling on Wednesday 11 November
  • Saturday 14 November Diwali / Deepavali
  • Sunday 29 November Start of Advent
  • Monday 30 November Scotland celebrates St Andrew’s Day with a bank holiday
  • Friday 11 December is the First Day of Hanukkah, with the Last Day falling on Friday 18 December
  • Monday 21 December Winter Solstice
  1. Your school may already be involved in one of the many National and international Awareness events that take place in the Autumn term. This year, many organisers have modified their events to enable teachers to take a more flexible approach. As well as being Black History Month, October is also time for the annual Big Draw, with artistic events around the country. Registration is now open for the 2020 Big Draw Festival and this year’s theme is #ClimateOfChange. A fundraising event that has become a regular fixture in many schools is Jeans for Genes Day. This year, the format is more flexible with schools able to hold their day at any time during the week beginning Monday 14 September. You can find out more and register at jeansforgenesday.org. We are all encouraged to #ShareAPoem on National Poetry Day on Thursday 1 October. You can download free resources from the education pages of the NPD Website. Many groups and charities that receive funding from the annual BBC Children in Need appeal have been helping disadvantaged children and families during the COVID-19 outbreak. This year’s event is planned for Friday 13 November. Another event featuring in the calendar of many schools is Anti-Bullying Week, which this year takes place between Monday 16 and Friday 20 November. The theme is ‘United Against Bullying’ and you can get more information and resources from the Anti-bullying Alliance.
  2. When the nights do draw in, and the weather gets colder, humans have responded by making lights and loud noises for as long as history records. In the UK, our excuse to celebrate with bonfires and fireworks is now Guy Fawkes Night on 5th November. Worth a reminder about firework safety and undoubtedly there will be additional guidance on staying safe.
  3. Some of the best school traditions happen in the Autumn term and will be upon us before we know it. Whatever guidance is in place to keep us safe this winter, it’s probably worth checking your Christmas jumper for moth holes, changing the battery for the LED lights in your elf hat, and starting to plan the school Nativity Play right now.
  4. At the end of this term, the Christmas holiday and New Year! Here’s looking forward to 2021!

What do you most look forward to in Autumn? Let me know if there are any dates or events that I’ve missed here.

Looking for some more inspiration for assemblies? Have a look at these educational quotes for Monday morning motivation.

Festival dates from timeanddate.com

Image: Rodger Caseby

Coronavirus, cool heads and ‘reopening’ schools

Much is being said and written at the moment about whether schools in England should ‘reopen’ on 1 June. Of course, the question isn’t actually about whether they should open or close because they are already open to vulnerable children of key workers. The real debate is about the conditions and timescale for the safe extension of opening to include more children. There are no plans to extend school opening on 1 June in other devolved regions of the UK.

Unfortunately, the discussion has not been helped by some sections of the media, with the Daily Mail taking the lead, attacking teachers. This could make the issue appear polarised but it is far more nuanced and, in my opinion, with two issues at heart: is the government’s guidance based on the best science available? Secondly, have plans drawn sufficiently from the wealth experience of teachers doing the job.

In reducing the issue to those two issues, I am not discounting other points that have frequently been raised, I just don’t think they are real points of contention. I don’t think there is any doubt that teachers want to teach. All the teachers I hear or read want to teach. I don’t think there is any doubt that parents want their children in school and learning. I think we all care about children, especially vulnerable children, and understand the dangers of missing education. The thing is, we know that teaching and learning needs to happen in a safe environment.

Is the guidance based on the best science?

The problem here is that COVID-19 is new, our understanding of it is developing at a rapid pace, and many scientific results in the media are unreviewed pre-prints. That said, there are several points of certainty:

  • There is no vaccine for Coronavirus. Protection therefore relies on limiting transmission through social distancing and the use of PPE
  • There is no treatment for Coronavirus itself. Current treatments involve supporting organ systems while an individual’s immune system fights the virus.
  • The average value of R in for the UK is less than 1, but closer to 1 than 0, and varies considerably between different areas and contexts. This means the number of infections will reduce, but slowly.
  • In comparison to other countries, the spread of Coronavirus in the UK (also US and Canada) is atypical. There have been many more deaths and a much slower decline in the UK than elsewhere. This means we should be highly cautious about using other countries as models for extending school opening. For example, Denmark has been given as a model, but has had hundreds of deaths rather than tens of thousands, and a lower R value when schools reopened.
  • There is consistent evidence that young children are less at risk of serious illness or death from Coronavirus. However a 30x increase in a previously-rare inflammatory condition which has led to a number of child deaths globally is a cause for concern.
  • There is mixed evidence on how infectious children are. Some studies indicate they spread the disease less than adults, others that they do so equally.

It is consideration of this evidence that has led the British Medical Association to endorse the stance taken by the National Education Union that insufficient regard has been made of the available evidence and that the timescale for extending pupil numbers in school is too rapid.

Do plans draw sufficiently on the experience of teachers?

The government says that it’s guidance has been drawn up in consultation with school leaders. As is sadly so often the case, it is not clear who these leaders are or how they came to be chosen as consultants. This has led many to the suspicion that they are an echo chamber of the favoured few whose views already chime with those in office. Without more information it is impossible to comment, but certainly the despairing reaction to the drip-feed DfE guidance from so many school leaders suggests that the consultation was not wide enough.

School leaders, teachers and other school staff have already worked incredibly hard. They have simultaneously adopted new ways of working within school, got to grips with a new world of remote working, and implemented other aspects of the response such as free school meals vouchers and the disappearance of the Easter holiday. They were already planning how their schools could be open to more pupils before any government announcement, with the benefit of full understanding of their context and in the light of their experience in school since March. While some of the DfE guidance will be helpful (if late), much of it seems unnecessarily constraining and not to take sufficient regard of the wide variety in school accommodation and contexts that exists.

I do wonder if the top-down model that government seems to be applying is simply inadequate in current circumstances. We have seen that central government perception of the the threat posed by Coronavirus, for supply of PPE, and of the needs of vulnerable groups, such as care homes, was at huge variance with the view of those working in health care. As a result, those on the ground had to act to address deficits in central planning and response. Hospital managers sourced PPE and ventilator parts from alternative sources, medical teams worked out new protocols, and volunteer community groups arose spontaneously in local neighbourhoods to support those in isolation.

I think the lesson from that experience should be that when planning a progressive easing of lockdown, both for schools and in other contexts, planning by central government departments will be much more effective, and safer for us all, if it starts with a lot more listening.

A way forward?

It is good that all parties are currently on discussion, although as yet the government does not not seem to have altered its stance on any point.

It seems to me that there are numerous points of obvious compromise and that agreement is possible. For example, the wording on PPE could be adjusted to give schools more discretion to use it. The commitment to ‘only when safe to do so’ could be reinforced by removing the dates for latter phases and making it clear that next steps will be taken in the light of evidence gathered. Heads who plan to use rota systems should be listened to (they have good reasons), and, in my view, whole school return cannot be considered until there are agreed plans in place to make that safe.

Lastly, while it’s good that so many people are talking about the importance of education, the welfare of children, and the benefits to families, the loudest voices in the media do not seem to be those of parents and carers, still less those of children themselves. We can only arrive at a solution by listening to the needs of families (not just a lone quote supporting an editorial stance), and our care for children must include a consideration of their hopes and concerns.