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Agenda item

Schools Operation during the Covid-19 Pandemic

To receive a presentation from the Acting Interim Chief Executive, Karen Bradshaw, on the impact of the Covid-19 virus on the operation of schools.


Contact:  Karen Bradshaw     tel 01743 254201


The Acting Interim Chief Executive, Director of Children’s Services, Karen Bradshaw introduced the presentation. [Copy attached to the signed minutes.]


The Principal Schools Improvement Advisor advised Members of attendance at schools from the start of the Covid-19 until the end of May which showed that a greater percentage of children in Shropshire continued to attend school than the national average. Members noted that the numbers of vulnerable children attending schools have significantly increased over this time. Members noted that since the wider reopening on 1st June of schools there has been a phased reopening of schools and numbers attending schools has risen gradually, with attendance rates in line with national figures.


The Principal Schools Improvement Advisor outlined the ways that communication with schools had been maintained during the lock down period, with schools being supported and challenged.  A parent helpline had also been established to ensure that school places were provided for the children of key workers and vulnerable children, this included early year settings.  Schools were asked to assess the needs of their vulnerable children to ensure they were in the most suitable setting through a RAG rating template.


Members heard that the Local Authority had requested maintained schools to carry out a risk assessment in preparation for the wider reopening.  Despite tight deadlines all schools completed the assessments by the deadline and no reopenings were delayed due to incomplete risk assessments.


The Service Manager for Learning and Skills, Children’s Services reported on home to school transport.  School transport had continued throughout the lock down period and usage rates mirrored the school attendance rates.  National guidance is detailed in regard to social distancing and has impacted on the number of children who can be carried and how this is done, with carriers operating at 25% capacity, which will not be manageable once schools fully reopen if restrictions are still in place. Provisions were put into place to support and conserve the supplier network through paying ‘Supplier Relief’ until the end of June and possibly extended to the end of October.


Members noted that schools had been notified that their core funding for the next year was fully protected so that all regular financial commitments would be met.  It had been acknowledged that schools had incurred additional costs as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic.  In April, Government guidance had been issued which outlined the additional costs that could be reclaimed up to a certain funding limit based on a banding scheme according to the size of the school.  Other costs not included in the initial guidance had been identified and it was hoped that the Government would produce further guidance on how these costs would be recognised and met, such as provision of PPE. Loss of private income was also of concern. As the employer for maintained schools the Council was responsible for furloughing staff who were paid directly from private income.  Only one application could be made to Government by a single employer and this had delayed the application. Academies were outside of the Local Authority control and were the employer of staff in their schools.


The Interim Acting Chief Executive advised Members that the Council had taken a whole Children and Young People’s Directorate approach to supporting children and families.  Early Help had provided services where other agencies had withdrawn due to Covid-19.  Children with special educational needs had experienced a particular challenging time.  Numbers of assessment requests were lower than would be expected and further work around this was required. There was concern regarding fewer multidisciplinary assessments being requested and alternative ways of providing these assessments were being explored.  Ofsted had been keen to support the Local Authority through this period and an inspector had been assigned who was working with children with an EHCP.


Members noted that the education access service [EAS] continued to work with children out of school to get them back into the education system.  Safe guarding drop in sessions had received positive feedback.  Children with a social worker had been risk assessed to ascertain whether they be better placed in school or remain in their care environment. Many of these children had been seen to thrive in their care settings.  Social work visits had continued throughout the lockdown and foster parents had received additional support.


The Interim Acting Chief Executive, Karen Bradshaw, advised Members that the numbers of referrals to Compass had dropped significantly and this was reflected in all local authority areas which flagged concerns for the future.


The Principal Schools Improvement Adviser advised members that work had been undertaken to get looked after children back into schools to avoid a breakdown of placements in homes. This had been done through the virtual school. The provision of laptops for vulnerable children through a Government schemes has assisted in supporting these learners. The protected positive learning environment for many in this group had allowed them to consolidate their learning without the distractions of the school environment. School attendance figures for these children had shown a rapid increase early in May.


Members heard that the Department of Education [DfE] guidance for home learning had a high degree of interpretation and localised decision making. The need for greater clarity had been raised with the DfE particularly for the situation from September onwards, with more children returning to the school setting the provision of home learning would become more challenging for schools.  Members noted that the communication with schools outlined the expectations of the blended curriculum, where different provision types were available.  Training had been provided by the IT department on on-line learning platforms and on-line learning resources.  


The Principal Schools Improvement Adviser expounded on the long-term effects of the pandemic and that support would continue to be provided for some time.  During the transition period the focus would move from childcare provision to education and the re-establishment of school routines.  The limitations of school buildings and transport to provide social distancing were being assessed to enable all children to return to school. Increased anxiety for children returning to school was anticipated and support for these children was being put in place to reduce future exclusions. Schools also needed support to undertake Tier 2 work.


The Principal Schools Improvement Advisor explained that school buildings had physical limitations due to their size and were being challenged by the number of places requested whilst social distancing. Schools had set up bubbles to reduce contact between groups of children.  It was anticipated that numbers attending school would increase as parents returned to work and this would increase difficulties. Positive feedback had been received with children returning to school.  


The Director of Children’s Services extended her thanks and appreciation to the head teachers and school staff for their quick response to the crisis and the dedication they had shown.


In response to a Member’s question on the provision of additional transport when schools fully reopened, the Service Manager for Learning and Skills, Children’s Services said that planning was critical for September, engagement with schools was underway, strategies were being developed with transport demand dependent on how schools reopened. Where transport was not available the full re-openings of a minority of schools may have to be managed beyond September.  Additional costs due to the current restrictions were of concern. 


The Principal Schools Improvement Advisor replied to a Member’s question on the challenges of schools returning to normal, identifying that in the short term a significant challenge was to safely provide all the places requested.  This was being done through the establishment of bubbles with children being confined to a small group of contacts. A helpline and a set of FAQs had been set up to answer parents’ questions and concerns. Members requested that regular information was provided on the status of schools reopening.


Following further questions, Members noted that a number of schools used rotas (slide 4) which were determined by risk assessments undertaken by the schools based on predicted numbers of children returning and available space and resources. It was anticipated that as staffing numbers increased the number of schools employing rotas would reduce. The Principal Schools Improvement Advisor advised that it was at the schools’ discretion on how they set up bubbles and whether siblings were put into the same bubble or separated.


The Service Manager for Learning and Skills advised that government guidance would be followed on face coverings in school settings when it was received.


Members noted that furloughing related only to staff funded from private income.  The Service Manager for Learning and Skills added that there was a statutory requirement to provide school meals to reception and year 1 children and the cost of these meals were met by a Government grant.  The Director of Children’s Services added that Government guidance on furloughing excluded local authority employees, but schools were able to furlough staff funded through private income (for example, for paid school meals) which had to done through the Local Authority as the employer who could only make a single application. Nine schools had requested to furlough staff and the application has been submitted. The Service Manager for Learning and Skills advised that Government guidance had been issued on costs incurred due to the Covid-19 crisis and this would be considered at future meetings of the Schools Forum.


The Director of Children’s Services confirmed that in line with the national trend, referrals to Compass had fallen, but the referrals being received were of a complex nature.  In terms of referrals to the NSPCC, which had reported a rise of 32%, it was expected that those referrals would be passed to the Local Authority as the statutory body for safeguarding referrals, which had not been received.  The Director of Children’s Services agreed to look into the matter.


In response to a Member’s question on the disparity of educational experience of children at different schools, with varying levels of engagement for both curricular and pastoral support,  the Principal Schools Improvement Advisor responded that head-teacher briefings continued, with one to one conversations with head teachers to encourage dissemination of good practice and information.  Where inconsistencies exist, these are challenged, and support provided. Schools were encouraged to offer continued pastoral care for pupils.  Referring to GDPR concerns, he confirmed that this was not applicable, and added that there was trades union advice to teachers on the use of electronic platforms to stream lessons and contact children and this advice was different for primary and secondary schools.  It was important that children without access to computer technology at home were not disadvantaged. Guidance on the expectations of the home curriculum had been requested from the DoE.


The Director of Children’s Services confirmed that some early years settings had continued to operate to provide childcare for looked after and key worker children.  She could not currently provide information on whether schools would be operating during the summer holidays as Government guidance had not yet been provided.  She confirmed that vulnerable children had been encouraged to continue attending school and Officers had challenged schools to make provision.


The Principal Schools Improvement Advisor confirmed that the Council did not hold data on the provision of schooling via the internet to children in rural areas.  Small scale provision of internet dongles had been made for children in areas with poor internet signals via the Government laptop scheme for vulnerable children.


A Member commented that she had received a letter from the Parents and Carers Committee [PAC] that children with special educational needs were not receiving appropriate and differentiated work, that they were not receiving one to one support and Severndale was not using the correct criteria for children returning to school.  The Director of Children’s services responded that the letter had been received and would be following up the points raised.


The Portfolio Holder for Children’s Services added his thanks to the school community in a challenging time, and to parents and young people who had adapted to the situation.  He particularly thanked foster parents who had supported and accommodated vulnerable children, ensuring they had access to education and support.  He continued that the reopening of schools had been an emotive subject but it had become clear how important it was for professionals to have eyes on children and young people for safeguarding purposes.


Members thanked the Director of Children’s Services and staff for the outstanding work that had been undertaken during a challenging time.




That the report be noted, and thanks extended to schools, families and Council staff for the combined efforts in working together in difficult times.

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