Home » Thoughts on Re-joining and recovering education as we move into a post-pandemic world | Think Piece One (29.4.20)

Thoughts on Re-joining and recovering education as we move into a post-pandemic world | Think Piece One (29.4.20)

Lead author: Dan Nicholls


This think piece reflects the thoughts and discussions of the Queen Street Group. It seeks to contribute to the present national discussion and support the education sector to plan for and successfully transition into a post-pandemic world. The timing of re-joining to a new normal is uncertain, but it is possible and important to plan how this transition and child-centred recovery can be led by the sector to support communities back to normal and children back to learning.

“Whilst the pandemic will be a part of this generation’s childhood, our responsibility as educators is to not allow it to be the defining feature of their childhood”

The need for this planning is urgent. The generation of children affected by this extraordinary pandemic, are already facing a number of challenges in their lifetimes that will extend well into and beyond the second half of the 21st Century. How we re-join, the care we apply and the intelligence we use in recovery will determine the long-term impact of the pandemic on this generation; an impact that is not being felt evenly across society.

Whilst these are challenging times, there are significant opportunities to build on the leadership and response shown by schools and Trusts during the pandemic and secure their role as important, trusted, societal actors, leading within their communities. This opportunity will mobilise and benefit from the strong leadership that is dispersed across our system to intelligently and contextually re-join children with their education and tackle the complex interconnected challenges of recovery.

“Complexity always brings new opportunities but only when society has strong leadership dispersed across the system” (Fullan, 2020)

The McKinsey 5Rs provide a useful structure for our sector thinking: Resolve, Resilience, Return, Reimagine, Reform. This think piece seeks to consider Return, and more briefly considers areas that would be considered as Reimagining and Reforming; so that educators can dance with the system to lead the improvement required to off-set the pandemic for our children; reimagining and reforming education. (the focus of subsequent Queen Street think pieces)

“…Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned. We can’t surge forward with certainty into a world of no surprises, but we can expect surprises and learn from them and even profit from them. … We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!” (Heath, 2020)


Schools and trusts have stepped up and taken proactive roles in their communities, including reaching out to families, feeding children and supporting provision for keyworker and vulnerable children.  Before we can consider the re-joining of education there needs to be a continued decline in the current progression of the virus and to meet the government’s 5 tests:

  1. Evidence that the NHS can cope across the UK
  2. A sustained fall in daily death rates
  3. Evidence that the rate of infection is decreasing
  4. Confidence that supplies of testing and PPE are able to meet demand
  5. No risk of a second peak

The following strategy for re-joining education can only work in tandem with meeting these tests and when it is safe to increase numbers of children and colleagues who will work in close proximity. Importantly, how we manage transition to more fully open schools cannot be realised whilst there is a need to social distance at the present level and if there is a need for significant PPE.

Whilst it is not possible to consider a “date” of return to normal education it will be more profitable to consider a phased return; one that is led by the sector and one that sensibly balances the following factors: (the first being a necessary condition for return)

  • Schools should only approach full opening when it is safe to do so (for children and colleagues).
  • It will become increasingly important to society and communities to return to something that approximates normal for children (and adults across the country). There is some evidence of opposition to on-going lockdown in other countries. Reducing the impact and influence of the pandemic on a generation’s childhood and how this plays out in their adulthood.
  • The widening disadvantage gap and the loss of learning will become increasingly costly to the present year groups. Including the deepening impact on vulnerable children. The impact of the pandemic increases with time for children; it is not a one-off happening – the length of this hiatus does matter.  A broader discussion on the widening disadvantage gap is presented here.
  • There is an increasing need to support the economy; the impact of recession or depression will not be felt equally across society and the present spending and hiatus will be felt by children and families over an extended period of time in a post-pandemic world.

Balancing these competing demands means the re-joining of education cannot be a binary decision on a specific date, but a set of phases, owned by schools and the sector, to support children to re-join their education and recover from the pandemic. There is presently an elevation of the role of teacher, schools and Trusts as community partners across the country. Levels of trust with parents and the community has increased over the period of the pandemic and this has set the conditions for greater sector ownership and leadership of re-joining education and recovery.

A phased approach to intelligently and contextually re-join education

The following sets out four defined Phases for re-joining education, timed in tandem with the progress of the pandemic, the government’s 5 tests and enabling the sector to take the lead into a post-pandemic world. The following is a schematic representation of the phases, the length of any particular phase is dependent on external factors. Importantly, Phase Three could offer an extended period of stability, recovery and certainty ahead of returning fully.

Thoughts on Re-joining and recovering education as we move into a post-pandemic world | Think Piece One (29.4.20)

Phase One | The Present | Open for keyworker and vulnerable children (1-4% attendance)

The present phase of opening for keyworker and vulnerable children is supporting the wider national strategy during the pandemic. The present attendance is typically between 1% and 4% nationally; higher for primary than secondary. Increasing this provision may be possible to support Phase 2 where there is an increase in the keyworker definition and where schools proactively encourage vulnerable children to attend.

Phase Two | Widening the keyworker and vulnerable Learner phase (5-10% attendance)

It may become desirable to increase the number of keyworker and vulnerable children that are attending schools and Hubs. Trusts are already reporting increased numbers attending school this and last week. The drivers may prompt an expansion of the current Phase, when it is safe to do so and by adhering to present social distancing measures:

  • To stimulate parts of the economy by increasing the keyworker definition as more businesses and organisations are supported to open.
  • To get closer to and support our vulnerable children and those that have become vulnerable. This is an increasing need as distance learning fails to successfully reach those who most need it.

This can be considered a transition to increasing attendance in Phase 3There is an option to move from Phase One to Phase Three, allowing a longer escalation through Phase 3. (this may well support clarity of the phasing to the new normal).

Phase Three | Moving toward “Half Opening” | staged up to 50% attendance and beyond

Phase 3 enables educators, schools and Trusts to manage a staged return to school for all students, up to 50% and beyond, as and when the local context supports return. This will work in tandem with national changes and the progression of the pandemic, and will require significant local flexibility on staffing, timetabling, management of the school building and curriculum.

The typical model would seek, when appropriate, to ensure all children receive at least one week in school, followed by one at home (other models could be adopted, whilst achieving the four guiding principles below). Across this phase, keyworker and vulnerable children would attend 100% of the time. As the phase progresses key year groups may also attend 100% of the time as safety and staffing allow, this may be particularly appropriate for the youngest year groups. The one week in, one out also allows a reversion back to work set in books to be completed at home in the fallow week, removing the reliance on distance learning.

Phase 3 could only be instigated when the 5 government tests are sufficiently met, the demands of social distancing are clear and it is safe to phase return; this will need to be a national declaration followed by local, contextualised decision making in the interests of children and colleagues to determine the scale of re-joining that is intelligent, proportionate and managed over time.

Against this background schools and Trusts could be empowered to manage Phase 3 with the following key principles. These could set the parameters for schools to adhere to during Phase 3.

  1. Where possible all children are able to access 50% of time within school to be taught in-line with the planned curriculum. Typically, there is a one week in one week at home model.
  2. We ensure a focus on keyworkers and vulnerable learners, who will be able to access 100% of learning in school.
  3. There are credible and additional strategies in place to address the widening disadvantaged gap.
  4. This contact time supports children to complete meaningful and sequenced work at home that is in books and followed up when next in school.
  5. Schools stagger arrangements for start and finish times, and reorganise flow of movement around buildings and the school site.

(The use of “half opening” in the following is used to reflect the move towards 50% over time and beyond when the local (and national conditions) are right to do so. In reality schools may progress through 25% to 40% to 50% to 60% etc. reflecting the local context)

This is the key phase for re-joining education and necessitates local discretion on the scale of opening, which will be contextually responsive (nationally and locally), to avoid fluctuating between “all open” or “all closed.” The following outline the key advantages, considerations and ambitions of Phase 3:

  • The safety of children and staff in school. There may be considerable nervousness from both groups to returning in phased manner to school. There is a need for clarity over appropriate safety and the nature of social distancing as we move to and through Phase 3.
  • The need to increase our access to vulnerable students, particularly those who may be less safe and those falling behind (including those without IT access). These could attend 100% of the time.
  • Maintain provision for keyworker children (including an extended definition of who keyworkers are in-line with the need to stimulate the economy).
  • Distance learning is of decreasing effectiveness and is contributing to the widening gap. All students will need to start to attend school, ideally up to 50% of the time.
  • Work and learning needs to be more closely directed by teachers to support learning between periods of in-school attendance. (typically, in the fallow week). Whilst there has been significant improvement in the quality of on-line learning and this could positively influence the post-pandemic world, it is not, and decreasingly so, an effective mechanism for long-term learning (something that relies more fundamentally on human interaction)
  • The “half-opening” approach will support
    • the following of the planned curriculum.
    • the development and implementation of a strong strategy to support disadvantaged learners.
  • There are wider aspects of “half opening” on the mental health and well-being of children. Supporting a controlled and flexible approach to returning will provide the required certainty.
  • This allows schools autonomy within the “Phase 3 period” to support a timed, measured and planned return to education for all children (and all staff).
  • During this period schools and trusts can reach out and work with families and the community to build confidence to attend school against the backdrop of the pandemic.

Phase Four | Moving to fully open (staged up to 100% attendance)

When the timing is right, determined by the stage of pandemic, the 5 national tests and the ability of a significant proportion of schools moving through Phase 3 to achieve 100% attendance then the sector could move to the new normal. Returning the opening and attendance in-line with pre-pandemic conditions (normal).

The opportunities for us as a sector | moving into our Innovation Space

The Return phase identified above, over a necessarily extended period, will create something of an innovation space for the sector, one that should encourage Reimagining and Reform. In line with this, the Queen Street Group has identified the following as key challenges and opportunities. Something that the group intends to continue to explore and offer contributions on in the future:

  • Build a deeper sense of schools and trusts as Societal Actors. Going upstream to deeply collaborate with the community to address systemic, societal, entrenched barriers.
  • Build the basis for a deep and intelligent disadvantage strategy across the sector to address the widening gap and the deep impact of the pandemic on the present generation.
  • Consider Formative Assessment in a broad sense to support re-joining of education and to develop a more holistic approach to assessment.
  • Quality of professional development and Induction for NQTs (who have missed training time) and RQTs (who have missed crucial early experience),
  • Investing in and continuing to build system collaboration to enable Trusts and Schools to work together for the good of children and colleagues.
  • Recommendations and thinking on assessment and examinations for 2021 summer season and in time 2022.
  • Thoughts on the role of inspection 2020-21 and beyond.
  • Deep consideration and evaluation of the curriculum in a post-pandemic world. To consider gaps in learning and adapt to the ameliorate the impact of the learning and curricular hiatus.
  • How do we prepare the present generation to be successful in the second half of the 21st Century? How far will our knowledge-emphasising curriculum give children what they need in adulthood so that they are economically and personally successful?