Back to school in the “new normal” – our top tips for getting ready for September

6 mins

Posted on 30 Jul 2020

Headteachers and senior management at schools will be busy preparing for the new academic year when, for the first time since lockdown, all pupils in all year groups will be expected to return to school full time. 

The Government has issued various sets of guidance which are regularly updated – the key guidance being its Guidance for full opening: schools.  

The main message is that schools should carry out a thorough risk assessment and take sensible and proportionate measures to ensure safety, but full attendance is expected - any rotas that were in operation will cease at the beginning of September - and schools should offer a broad and full curriculum and aim to return to the school’s normal curriculum by the summer term in 2021.

With so many practical points to consider before the new term, we’ve set out a summary of the key things heads and senior management should be thinking about now.

Carry out a risk assessment

If you haven’t already, your school must undertake a risk assessment to identify the measures needed to reduce the risks from coronavirus as much as is reasonably practicable for your pupils and staff. HSE guidance on how to approach a coronavirus risk assessment can be found here. The key is to identify sensible measures and guidelines to control the risks in the school.

Consult over your risk assessment  

Schools should carry out the risk assessment in consultation with their staff (or with union-appointed health and safety representatives, where they have them), to get their views on how everyone can work safely. Schools should also share the results of the risk assessment with staff. If possible, it is also sensible to involve pupils and/or parents in discussions around health and safety decisions to help them understand the reasons for the measures being put in place.

Decide on your bubbles  

The Government has proposed that pupils will be put into bubbles with other pupils in their class. The bubbles can be of any size and this depends on the size of the school. For some schools the bubble could encompass the entire year group.  

Plan new routines, with extra precautions

The DfE’s guidance has some practical steps on planning your new routines to ensure safety. For example:

  • Anyone displaying symptoms will be sent home from school 
  • Assemblies should be avoided 
  • Schools should consider staggered start and finish times for different year groups as well as staggered lunch and break times 
  • Desks should be arranged so that pupils are all facing the same direction and are not facing each other 
  • Staff should maintain distance from pupils and other staff as much as possible
  • Staff and pupils will be tested for coronavirus if they show symptoms and will be expected to wash their hands upon entering and leaving school
  • Schools must also ensure that pupils clean their hands regularly, including when they arrive at school, when they return from breaks, when they change rooms and before and after eating
  • Staff, pupils and other adults must not come to school if they have coronavirus symptoms or have tested positive in the last 7 days 

Consider your SEND pupils 

Schools will be required to provide full support for students with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), including providing teaching assistants.  It is widely anticipated that some SEND pupils may have difficulty in terms of coming back to school and schools are encouraged to communicate with parents early to plan the pupil’s return and manage risk. There is specific guidance for complex needs cases and “contact care” which should be provided as normal. Personal Protective Equipment can be used, especially for aerosol generating procedures.  

The key message is that by working closely with partners including Local Authorities and Clinical Commissioning Groups, schools should ensure that all SEND provision will be in place by September 2020.

Be prepared for flexible working requests from staff

Schools should give some thought to how you might deal with any flexible working requests from staff who want to work some or all of their hours from home. All employees with 26 weeks’ service or more can make a formal flexible working request and you’ll have to consider this fairly and consistently to avoid possible claims. Do you have a flexible working policy in place?

Have a plan for handling Subject Access Requests related to exam results

Even before the new academic year starts, last year’s year 11 and 13 will be returning to school to receive their exam results in August. This year there are additional motivations for pupils to make a subject access request (SAR) relating to their grades, which they have a legal right to do. The appeal right in relation to the results is limited, but a SAR is often the starting point as pupils gather ammunition and seek to find out what their predicted grades and rankings were.

As well as SARs, schools and colleges should expect both Freedom of Information Act (FOI) requests and hybrid requests.  SARs do not have to be limited to the exam assessment data; pupils can ask for all their personal data held by the school or college.  

The deadlines for responding to a SAR in relation to ‘exam script data’ differs to the normal 30-day time limit for other personal data requests – you have to respond within 40 days after results day; or within 5 months if the request is made before results day. ‘Exam script data’ has a broad definition and the clock starts on the date of receipt of the request.  

Schools might want to consider:

  • Training staff on handling and responding to SARs and how quickly to act, noting there is no requirement for a request to be in writing
  • Who in the school could be approached for access to data, would it be the subject teacher?  
  • Creating template responses
  • Engaging in early communication with parents in relation to pupils’ options, appeal rights and any additional support the school can offer 
  • Operating good file management: the key is creating a central record and having both the rank order and the allocated grades held in one place for each student
  • Setting up a SAR logging system on a spreadsheet/database that works out the date for reply

Making changes to staff Ts & Cs?

Be aware that, if you are thinking about making any changes to your employees’ terms and conditions as a result of Covid-19, such as to their hours or pay, you will need to consult with them first. In some cases, you may need to consult with recognised trade unions or employee representatives and so you should take legal advice before implementing any changes.

And finally….

We’re working closely with schools to find workable solutions to the difficult issues they are facing - so if there’s anything that you’d like to discuss or just sound out with us, please get in touch with Doyle Clayton’s Education Team 

The articles published on this website, current at the date of publication, are for reference purposes only. They do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Specific legal advice about your own circumstances should always be sought separately before taking any action.

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