Volunteers returning to teaching: seven practical questions

With so many serving teachers incapacitated with Covid or required to isolate, the Department for Education are asking retired teachers and those who have recently left teaching to volunteer for a temporary return to teaching in order to maintain education for children.

The DfE are asking ex-teachers to temporarily return to the classroom

Whatever our views about this move and likelihood of its success, it raises several practical questions.

How will safeguarding be ensured?

Returning teachers are unlikely to have a current DBS check nor will they have up to date safeguarding training. With DBS checks sometimes taking weeks to be returned, it would help if the DfE could expedite this process.

It might also help if safeguarding training was part of the recruitment process, particularly newer aspects of Keeping Children Safe in Education and the safeguarding considerations in remote or blended teaching. Schools will still need to provide training on local safeguarding policy and procedures and time for this must be taken into account.

How will staff health be protected?

As many have commented, bringing retired teachers back into classrooms amidst high infection rates with little mitigation beyond open windows risks endangering them. Former teachers who have moved into other occupations are also unlikely to view a move into a risky school environment as attractive.

Carbon dioxide monitor.
Image credit: Morn CC BY-SA 4.0

I used to teach in schools and now work in the education teams of a university museum and library. My current employer has introduced measures including active ventilation, HEPA filters, carbon dioxide monitors and protocols for safe levels, provision of PPE, mask wearing in work spaces, social distancing measures, and enhanced cleaning regimes.

Schools do not typically match these provisions, do not have equipment, or have not yet received equipment.

What about working conditions?

While some teachers may have retired contentedly after years of teaching, we know that there is a retention crisis in teaching with many leaving the profession prematurely, often for the sake of their health and well-being, or to restore a reasonable work-life balance. Unless these underlying issues are addressed, a return to teaching is unlikely to be attractive under normal circumstances, let alone with the additional pressures created by the pandemic.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be much of a real commitment to improve the situation. One area that could be addressed immediately is Ofsted inspections. The introduction of the temporary returnee scheme is an admission that schools are currently operating in emergency mode. The operation of a school with significant numbers of absent staff cannot be a true reflection of its normal provision. Should Ofsted inspections therefore be suspended for the duration? This would have the additional benefit of freeing inspectors to volunteer themselves.

Who pays?

Schools aren’t just facing a shortage of teaching staff, they have also suffered an unprecedented drain on funds. If the costs of the scheme have to be met by individual school budgets it is unlikely to be affordable. Schools may apply to the Covid fund but must meet strict eligibility criteria to be eligible. Wouldn’t it be better for the DfE to fully fund this temporary provision for its duration. This would allow school leaders to plan ahead rather than having wait until finances reach a critical level before commencing an application.

Why use supply agencies?

The DfE scheme asks returning teachers to register with a Supply Agency. We need to ask what the advantage of this is. While agencies may be able to play a role in matching teachers with schools, this will inevitably lead to a proportion of public money going from school budgets to these private sector companies, rather than directly to teachers.

There can be few school leaders who have not been frustrated by the charges of agencies and many a teacher who has found themselves locked into a contract after realising they could be earning more by dealing with schools directly. It’s perfectly possible to secure supply work by contacting schools directly and these surely will be the first port of call for recently retired staff. Why isn’t this option available?

What about remote teaching?

While the aim may be to place teachers in the classroom, remote teaching should not be excluded. It may well be necessary for schools to move to remote teaching in whole or in part, as was already happening before Christmas. Even if it isn’t, provision will need to be made for pupils who need to isolate at home.

Teachers who have worked during the pandemic have become adept at remote teaching following a steep learning curve. Returning teachers are less likely to be familiar with the technology and may not have developed these particular teaching skills. Training in remote teaching should form part of the overall package.

How will it affect pensions?

A temporary return to work could impact adversely on pensions, especially for those older staff members who have final salary pensions and return to a main scale teaching position having previously held responsibilities or leadership positions.

Mix of coins and bank notes

The DfE should clarify the position on pensions with a commitment that a temporary return to teaching should in no way disadvantage teachers’ pensions.

What is your view on the recruitment of ex-teachers to help schools? What other questions does this scheme raise? I’d be interested to know your views.

Lots to look forward to in the Autumn term 2021

After the challenges of the last year were all hoping that the coming term will be a return to something like normality for UK schools. Whatever the future holds, here’s my roundup of things to look forward to this autumn.

Autumn Term Top Ten

  1. Although we didn’t get the best of summers this year, we should still have a few weeks of warmer days before the nights draw in. Let’s make the most of them while we can.
  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. While we may have concerns about the return to school, children will have that same feeling of open possibility. This is an opportunity to help them capture that feeling and go on to achieve great things!
  3. Keats famously described autumn as the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ And we can all take delight from the many natural signs that summer is turning into autumn. Keep an eye out for which plants are flowering now, which fruits are ripening and which leaves changing colour. Which changes in the behaviour of birds and other animals do you notice? You’ll soon find that no two days are alike. You can find out more, and a range of nature-based activities on the Wildlife Trusts’ Looking After Yourself and Nature webpage.
  4. The annual Macmillan Coffee Morning, this year on 24 September, is now a firm fundraising fixture in many schools. You can sign up and get more information and a fundraising kit here: Macmillan Coffee Morning 2021.
  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. Why not make BHM 2021 a focus for an inclusive and diverse curriculum, not only for a 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. Friday 22 October is Wear Red Day when we are encouraged to wear something red to show unity against racism. You can find out more on the Show Racism the Red Card website.
  6. This Autumn sees a range of other national awareness events. The links here will take you to information and resources for schools. This year’s Big Draw Festival has the theme ‘Make the Change’, exploring ways to live in balance with the world around us, to reconnect with each other and create a better world for future generations. Jeans for Genes Day lasts a week this year, with schools able to hold their day at any time in the week beginning Monday 13 September. We are all encouraged to #ShareAPoem on the theme of ‘Choice’ on National Poetry Day 2021, which is 7 October. You can download free resources from the education pages of the website. Another event featuring in the calendar of many schools is Anti-Bullying Week, which this year takes place between Monday 15 and Friday 19 November with the theme of ‘One Kind World’. 19 November is also the date of this year’s annual BBC Children in Need appeal which has become a regular fundraising focus for many schools.
  7. 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; well worth a reminder about firework safety.
  8. Some of the best school traditions happen in the Autumn term and will be upon us before we know it. So, check your Christmas jumper for moth holes, change the battery in your LED-lit elf hat, try to recall where you put that box of decorations, and start planning the Nativity Play now!
  9. At the end of this term, the Christmas Holiday beckons. This year, because it and Boxing Day fall on the weekend, the UK Bank Holidays are on Monday 28 & Tuesday 29 December.
  10. There are many other key dates, holidays and festivals you may wish to mark during the Autumn term:
  • Tuesday 7 September Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year celebration
  • Thursday 16 September Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement
  • Tuesday 22 September Autumn Equinox
  • Sunday 31 October is Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, and this year it is also the end of British summer time, so clocks go back one hour
  • Monday 1 November is the Christian feast of All Saints’ Day
  • Tuesday 2 November is the Christian feast of All Souls’ Day
  • Thursday 4 November Diwali / Deepavali, the Hindu Festival of Lights
  • Thursday 11 November Armistice Day, with Remembrance Sunday following on 14 November
  • Sunday 28 November marks the start of Advent in the Christian Calendar
  • Monday 29 November is the First Day of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, with the Last Day falling on Monday 6 December
  • Tuesday 30 November St Andrew’s Day, a Bank Holiday in Scotland
  • Tuesday 21 December is the Winter Solstice, with the shortest day length of the year.

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: Pixabay / Peggy Choucair

Lost for natural words?

Galium aparine.
Image credit: Eveline Simak CC-BY-SA 2.0

What would you call this plant? For gardeners it might be a weed, for naturalists, a wildflower, and to botanists it’s Galium aparine. For our ancestors, it was an important natural resource: edible, medicinal, useful as animal fodder, and important in cheese production.

For generations of children, though, it has simply been a source of fun. The stems, leaves and seeds are covered in tiny hooks. These evolved because they assist seed dispersal when they become caught in animal fur. This means that the plant will also easily stick to clothing leading to games and pranks that young children love.

Surface of G. Aparine fruit.
Image credit: Stefan Lefnaer CC-BY-SA 4.0

For these reasons, G. aparine has a host of common names. You may know it as ‘goosegrass’, ‘cleavers’, ‘stickybob(s)’, ‘sticky willy’, ‘hitchhikers’, or perhaps ‘Velcro plant’. It has also been called ‘bedstraw’ because it was once used as a mattress filling. It has many other names, and that’s just in English. The plant is known to many cultures because it has a widespread distribution across Europe, North Africa and Asia. It is also found in North America and has become naturalised in Central and South America, and many other parts of the world.

Despite its long social history, our connection to this plant might be becoming lost to modern children. I hope that the wonderful names for this plant are not disappearing as one of the ‘lost words’ described by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris in their wonderful book of the same name.

In my work for the HOPE For the Future project at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford, I visit schools for ‘Insect Discovery Days’, helping them to discover new things about insects and their importance in ecosystems. While we frequently find children who are a fount of knowledge on this topic, when we begin to explore local green spaces, especially in urban areas, I find that children are disconnected from nature and may not have words to describe even common plants and animals that they find.

To my surprise, this happened recently when children were lost for words to name this common plant. There was a lot of new growth across the ground in a wooded area and it began to stick to children’s socks and trousers, as we explored the copse. Some children found that it then stuck to the arms of their coats as they tried to pick it off, much to their delight.

For many of the group this seemed to be a new experience. When we began to discuss it, it became clear that most children did not have a name for the plant. When I asked them what they would call it, I had one response of ‘sticky bobs’, but most children responded with adjectives like ‘sticky’ or ‘prickly’ rather than common nouns.

I responded with some names I knew it by and explained how the tiny hooks made it stick to clothes. We also found some aphids feeding on it.

I was glad to have introduced them to part of the natural world (anof course, the insects we were there to study) as well as a little of its folklore, but remained disconcerted that this information, such an intrinsic part of my own generation’s childhood, was so new to them.

Fortunately, that school has a well planned and protected wildlife area and are partners in a community orchard – especially welcome in an urban setting. Perhaps, as we all emerge from the restrictions of lockdown, we can take some time to reconnect with nature, and help children share in the simple delight that previous generations found in the natural world around them.

Things to look forward to in Summer Term 2021

I’ve been writing these ‘start of term’ posts for a while now. This time, more than ever before, it feels like we’ll all be looking forward to making the most of what summer has to offer as we emerge not just from winter, but from over a year of tackling Covid.

Times remain difficult and much that would normally happen this term must be postponed, or happen in a different way. Nevertheless, I hope that there is still a lot to look forward to.

The clocks have gone forward and each day is a little longer than the one before. One thing to enjoy is more waking up and coming home from work in daylight. Longer (hopefully) sunlit days help lift our mood, so it’s a good idea to try to make some time to get outside each day; even if it’s overcast, natural sunlight will do you good.

For 2021, The Big Pedal, organised by the charity Sustrans, runs from Monday 19 April to the end of the month. This annual event challenges primary and secondary school pupils to cycle, scoot and wheelchair as many miles as they can. You can find out more, register and pick up free resources from the Big Pedal website.

If you prefer two feet to two wheels, Walk to School Week is back to it’s usual time in the calendar, spring, running from 17-21 May. You can order a classroom pack now from the Living Streets Website.

While you’re out and about, take some time to connect with nature. Look out for the many changes in the natural world as spring turns into summer. Which plants are coming into bloom? Which berries and fruits are starting to form? Which birds, bees and butterflies do you notice? Take note of these small changes and you’ll soon see that no two days are alike. You can even use an app such as iRecord to add your nature sightings to the National database. If your pupils are feeling inspired by nature, the might want to submit a poem for the Into the Green Poetry Project that I’m involved with, run by The Bodleian Libraries and Oxford Botanic Garden to celebrate 400 years of plant science in Oxford. You can download a project pack from the Bodleian’s website. The deadline for submissions is 1 July 2021.

Connecting with nature is one way to look after our mental health and ‘nature’ is the theme of UK Mental Health Awareness Week which, this year, runs from 10-17 May. You can find out more from the Mental Health Foundation who are asking us to share images, videos and sounds of nature on social media using the hashtag #ConnectWithNature.

Lockdown and travel restrictions have highlighted adverse effects of fossil fuel use including air pollution and the climate emergency. The UN World Environment Day is on Saturday 5 June and this year marks the start of the UN’s Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. This could provide a focus for learning activities about human impact and the environment. You can find out more at worldenvironmentday.global #GenerationRestoration

THERE ARE MANY FESTIVALS, HOLIDAYS AND EVENTS THIS TERM:

  • Ramadan has already started and is observed by Muslims until Eid ul-Fitr on, or near 13 May
  • Stephen Lawrence Day is on Thursday 22 April
  • St George’s Day is on Friday 23 April and this is also Shakespeare Day
  • May is topped and tailed by bank holidays, with the Early May Bank Holiday on Monday 3 May and the Spring Bank Holiday on Monday 31 May
  • Friday 7 May is the Jewish Holiday of Shavuot
  • The Christian feast of Pentecost is on Sunday 23 May
  • In the UK, Fathers’ Day is on Sunday 20 June
  • Monday 21 June marks the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year
  • Tuesday 22 June is Windrush Day which marks the anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks in 1948 and celebrates the British Caribbean community
  • Tuesday 20 July is Eid ul-Adha, or greater Eid

Many of the most memorable aspects of school life usually happen during the Summer term: school trips, outdoor education, Summer concerts and productions, PTA barbecues, sports days, enrichment weeks, proms and end of year awards.

These enrich the curriculum and help build communities. This year these events will be very different, and some may not be possible at all, but schools will find ways to celebrate their own unique community and the landmark transitions for years 6, 11, and 13.

Hopefully, by the end of the summer term, teachers and pupils alike will be able to enjoy a well-earned summer break after an extraordinary school year.

Looking for a little inspiration?

I have collected educational quotes for several years. I originally put up one each Monday morning in the staffroom of the school I worked. They proved popular, so I started sharing them online as well.

In this first gallery, I have combined the quotes with my own photographs. I hope they inspire you. Please feel free to use and share them freely, but within the terms of the Creative Commons licence under which I have made them available: please attribute the images to me and do not use them for commercial purposes. Thank you.

The images used in the gallery below are all in the public domain. I have simply added the quotes.

You can find many more education quotes in my series of posts on Motivation for Mondays.

Stepping forward into growth

Half term, February 2021. Right now, many teachers are feeling exhausted by a school year has already been the hardest they have ever faced.

Teaching used to mean groups of young people learning together in a classroom, or perhaps for you that’s a lab, workshop, gym or sports field. By now, half way through the year, we would know these groups we would have established familiar learning routines and feel secure in our shared space.

This year, all that has been different. Teaching has meant juggling face-to-face and remote teaching, while often looking after children at home and worrying about older or vulnerable relatives and friends.

I hope that the half term break will be a chance for you to pause and rest. Take a moment to reflect on how much you have grown and what you have achieved. You have learned to teach in different ways. You have mastered technologies many of us hadn’t even heard off in 2019. Above all, you have enabled those children and young people in your care to continue to learn and grow, while all the time providing the reassurance of continuity and stability in hugely uncertain times.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow said that at any moment we have the choice to step forward into growth. You made that choice to grow when challenged by the most difficult of moments. That deserves to be celebrated.

If you like the quote I used here, you can find more like it in my posts on Motivation for Mondays.

A safer internet: four steps to check reliability

I wrote this post for Safer Internet Day 2021, but the advice applies at any time. The theme was ‘An internet we trust: exploring reliability in an online world’. You can find out more, and download resources for different age groups, on the Safer Internet Centre website.

At a time when both teachers and children are working remotely over the internet, it is more crucial than ever that we can rely on the information, and sources of that information, that we encounter online.

In my role within the Education Team at the Bodleian Libraries, I deliver sessions on academic study skills, including evaluating online sources. You can find resources for this (and other course topics) on the OxLibris website. The guidance is aimed at students researching for the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) and other coursework, but it applies to any online research.

1. What is the purpose of this site?

Ask yourself why the information has been put online. What is the intention of those who created the site, or posted the information? Is it to inform or educate? To entertain? Perhaps it’s to persuade or promote a particular opinion or point of view? Maybe the aim is marketing: to sell a product.

While information about the site can be useful in deciding this, it is also useful to look at any adverts on the site. While many sites will carry adverts that are unconnected with the information, ask yourself if the advertisers could be influencing the site content. This could be directly by paying for the content, or indirectly because the site avoids publishing anything that they think advertisers will not like.

2. Who has provided this information?

There are several ways we can find out who is behind a website and the information it contains. A well-run website should make it easy for users to find this out.

  • An ‘About’, ‘About Us’ or ‘Who We Are’ tab in the menu or navigation bar is a good place to start. This should provide information about who is behind the site and their reasons for creating it.
  • Contact details can often be found on a ‘Contact Us’ page or link. Ideally, this should provide as much contact information as possible, not just a web form or email address. Look for a registered telephone number and a postal address.
  • Organisational information. If the site is a business or charity this should be obvious. In the UK, companies, including non-profit companies, should be registered. Their company number will allow you to look up details of the company and its directors. Charities should be registered with the Charities Commission. Their registration number should be present and can be checked to verify their charitable status.
  • If the website collects information about you, perhaps through a sign-up form for news updates, it should include a Privacy Notice saying how they will use any personal information they collect, the legal basis for processing your information, how you can opt out, and who you can contact if you have any questions about this.
This homepage has an ‘About us’ tab, contact details, charity and company registrations, and a link to a privacy notice. Image credit: fullfact.org

If you can’t find this information, ask why this might be. While it may just be poor web design, it could be because the creators want to remain obscure.

3. Are there references for primary sources?

A primary source of information is written by the person who first produced the data, information, idea or opinion. Websites often summarise this information. This may be to disseminate it more widely, or to make it more accessible for non-specialists. It may also be to support the author’s own ideas, or to place a particular slant on the original information. In extreme cases, it can be used to create ‘fake news’ by surrounding a kernel of fact with misinformation.

You should be able to trace the original source of information by looking for references. These should detail where to find the source, which could be a book, published article, news item, or online publication. Wherever possible a link to the source should be included.

It’s important to check sources, especially for controversial topics. This enables us to verify not only whether the information is accurate but also whether it has been interpreted in an accurate and unbiased way. It’s particularly important to check sources for claims made on social media.

4. Has the information been fact checked?

Following up references enables us to check facts, but this isn’t always possible, particularly for fast-developing news stories, or information communicated over social media platforms. Fortunately, information may already have been fact-checked. A number of organisations have arisen in recent years to meet the need for objective fact-checking of claims that are made online and in the news.

When using such sites, we need to be as careful as we would with any site over who is running it and why, because some sites which claim to be objective in fact promote a particular viewpoint. Two sites which are both independent and reliable are fullfact.org and fact-check.org.

Full Fact is a UK-based charity and non-profit company that provides a fact-checking service for topical news items.

Fact Check is based in the United States and focuses on US politics, although there is some coverage of international topics.

A particular favourite of mine is politifact.com. While its scope is largely restricted to US politics, I do enjoy the six-point ‘truth-o-meter’ ratings it gives to statements, which range from ‘True’ for verified facts, to ‘Pants on Fire’ to outright fabrications!

When attempting to navigate the myriad of information available online, taking a little time to go through these four steps will go a long way to ensuring that the sources of information you use are reliable.

If you are interested in online safety, you might like my post on Lessons from a Ransomeware Attack.