Philip Collins: right, but also wrong.

This week in The Times, Philip Collins (not the Genesis guy) set out his master plan for getting children back to school. Given that I want nothing more than to get my school back to normal, I was interested to see what he had to say. As always, there is much that is worth noting, but also – as so often – much which misunderstands (or ignores) reality.

So what did he say?

Boris should not “sack Gavin Williamson so much as overwhelm him”

As far as I can tell, this has pretty much already happened. Too much of the confusion and chaos has come about because Number 10 announces things without enough consultation with the DfE – and then schools are faced with a constant bombardment of updated policy as the civil servants try to catch up.

Explain how Danish and German schools have been able to reopen without a spike in infections.

Well, first of all it appears that one of the things Denmark and Germany have done is to limit the spread and impact of the virus such that their additional excess deaths to around 6% of the normal amount, compared to nearly 60% in the UK. I’d say there’s definitely something we could learn here. It’s also notable that their deaths per capita are less than 1/5 of those in the UK. But presumably that’s not what Mr Collins had in mind?

In Germany, most areas are teaching classes in half-size groups (just like the UK), while in Saxony where they proposed full classes, a campaign by parents has led to attendance being made optional.

It seems that in Denmark they started with groups of fewer than 10, and have now allowed up to 15 – exactly what’s happened in UK primaries. In some cases it appears that schools have therefore recruited significantly more teachers; that will be a tall order in the UK where recruitment is tough as it is, but if the government can fund it, I know schools like mine would gladly have more teachers to get more children in.

It seems that at best, what we can learn is that it might be possible to extend the existing model being used in primary schools into secondary schools.

Let’s convert other premises to make schooling consistent with the rules on social distancing

That’s a reasonable suggestion to start with. It might have been easier if government funding hadn’t reduced the number of public buildings available for such things, whether that’s libraries or sure start centres. But perhaps Mr Collins had other buildings in mind? I’ve no objection in principle, and I’m happy to put in the work to safeguarding, risk assessments, etc. if the government will fund the additional staffing. Because, of course, we’re still talking about doubling the numbers of groups. How do we solve that?

Let’s call up an army of retired teachers as we did with the NHS at the height of the pandemic. 

Apparently around 15,000 NHS staff volunteered to rejoin the frontline.

We currently have around 425,000 teachers in England, and around 8 million pupils. If we are to have class sizes of 15, even if we were able to remove all duplication (PPA cover, SENCo work, headteachers’ admin, etc.) , we’d still need another 100,000 teachers overnight. That’s quite an army of the over-60s we need.

Split the primary school day in two with half the pupils attending in the morning and half in the afternoon, with a voucher each for lunch.

I’m not sure how Mr Collins would imagine this working for parents. There probably aren’t that many jobs where families can work half-days. But it’s not an impossible approach to have primary schools operating on some sort of rota. Indeed, many wanted to until the government ruled it out – and some still have.

Given the need to clean in between different groups using spaces, a better plan might be to offer either alternative weeks, or at least half-weeks of in-school education, complemented by home learning for the other days – but it’s certainly not going to get the nation’s workforce back on the job straight away.

The government needs to set a minimum expectation that all schools must provide for each of the key stages of education

We call that the National Curriculum, but if his argument that we need to thin it for the duration, I’m open to that possibility. I think in reality what he means is that there needs to be clear guidance on expectations for home learning. I’m all in favour of that, too, so long as every family has access – which they certainly don’t at the moment.

State schools could be partnered with private schools to maximise that part of the curriculum which is still online

I don’t know what this means but it probably sounds like a solution. There are already excellent things happening in the state sector, such as the Oak National Academy. But again, the main hurdle here is access. If every child needs internet access, then we need a lot more broadband connections, devices and support for families.

Head teachers would then be charged with guaranteeing that all their pupils had the technological facility to do their work.

Ah, I see… it’s my problem to solve. That’s great. I can do that. I would say that it would be easier if the government managed it centrally, but their track record on getting devices to the most needy has been a disappointment at best. But yes, make it my responsibility and give me the money, and I’ll get it done.

A special fund, added to the pupil premium for poorer children, must be made available to provide this.

That would work. But let’s not imagine that it’s just those children who are eligible for pupil premium who need this support. Families who are otherwise reasonably financially comfortable don’t necessarily have enough devices for everyone in their household. This is a big spend Mr Collins is talking about. I guess it’s easy to come up with solutions when you’re not responsible for the purse strings.

Scrap the summer holiday, for at least this one extraordinary year.

Mr Collins appears to think that “this extra effort will be a sacrifice for teachers, who ought to be compensated accordingly, but the great majority will want to do the right thing”. Teachers do want to do the right thing, but they also want to see their families, spend time with their own children and have a break. For school leaders particularly, this academic year has been pretty much non-stop since Christmas and headteachers are already showing 10 percentage point increase in feelings of burn-out. Unless Mr Collins is expecting the newly-returned retirees to take on these roles, I’d suggest that it’s quite a risk to push heads much further.

Apparently, “plans for summer schools are well advanced in Belgium”. I can’t find any information about these, but @MsVCooke directed me towards this article on Summer Camps. If that is what Mr Collins is referring to, then I think he may be expecting a lot if he thinks such schemes would “close the gap”.

The school year is usually 190 days. Next year it should be 210.

There’s an argument for this. Although, of course, as Mr Collins says teachers will need compensating for a significant increase in their teaching hours. Again, if the money is there, then I’m sure the profession is open to the discussion. But that’s a big ‘if’

Of course, it’s worth noting that Mr Collins is basing much of his thinking on evidence from the US, where there are already two fewer weeks of learning, and almost double the length of the summer holidays.

In some cases, the rules about a child repeating a year could be relaxed. 

I don’t know what he thinks the rules are, but given that the rules are that such decisions are made on children’s best interests, that seems a pretty sensible approach.

All children who are beginning secondary school in the autumn should be tested, to assess what maths and English help they may need.

Why only those beginning secondary? Surely all schools should be assessing all pupils to find out what help they need. Whether that’s through tests is probably a decision best left to teachers.

The government should establish a national tutoring service with help targeted in maths and in English, offered in the final year of primary school and the first years of secondary school, the critical phase for learning.

Eh? Who says that’s “the critical phase”?

But that oddity aside, I’ve no objection to a national tutoring service. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell there’s no indication from Mr Collins who will be staffing this service. Are we engaging all those thousands of retired teachers desperate to ditch their retirement?

Mr Collins does note that “good tuition can boost a child’s learning by the equivalent of five months”. He didn’t mention the cost of £700 per pupil from the same source. Presumably that’s all part of the funding he imagines the government is preparing to throw at schools?

It is astonishing that, months into this crisis, there is no evident plan.

I couldn’t agree more. I want to hear from the government about the viability of having all primary school pupils back in class from September. I want to hear how they believe they could safely manage an increased number of secondary-aged pupils in school, and what support they’ll give to families who need now to be able to engage with learning from home in a way that’s never been possible before.

I’d love to hear Gavin Williamson announce the sorts of levels of funding that Mr Collins seems to think are on the horizon. But his suggestion that the first part of the solution is to “Divide and rule” is misguided.  Teachers are not opposed to sensible thinking, high levels of investment, and getting their jobs back to normal: the barriers are elsewhere.

To have written a more accurate and constructive article, Mr Collins might have been best simply to say that what Boris should do is to invest massively in teachers, schools, technology and disadvantaged families. An approach like that would knock spots off a couple of extra weeks in school every summer.





One thought on “Philip Collins: right, but also wrong.

  1. Graham Cooksey 15 June 2020 at 4:56 pm Reply

    AMAZING article – love how you forensically tackle each point. I learnt a lot about the international situation too.

    Well done and keep up the amazing work Michael!

    Kind Regards

    Graham Cooksey

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