Planning a return to school-based practise in design and technology

Published 1st June 2020

A phased return to a new version of normal

Last week my wife and I both received the same email from my daughter’s school where she is currently a year 10 student. I should state that we are fortunate in that the school is truly outstanding (beyond any Ofsted measures) and their handling of the COVID-19 crisis has been exceptional, weekly updates for parents and constant contact between teachers and students with some very creative and challenging learning assignments.

The email outlined the school leadership’s understanding of government advice and gave parents the option of sending students in year 10 back after half term on the knowledge that they would be in small learning pods (maximum 12 in size) with one teacher (as yet unspecified) supervising learning. We discussed this with our daughter and decided we would not be taking the school up on this offer; most of her friends seem to have made the same decision.

I know how fortunate we are, we have a very highly motivated and able daughter, good digital access, a range of devices to hand and space for my daughter to work uninterrupted, I fully understand that so many students nationally are not in this position. It is becoming clear that we are not going to eradicate this virus any time soon, we need to work out the safest way possible to start a return to formally organised and delivered education, for most, that means an imminent return to school for key year groups.

There will be no government instruction

As a school leader, I very quickly accepted that the government might issue instruction on what needs to happen; but because of the fluid context of schools nationally they are unlikely to issue instructions around how to turn direction into action. I would argue that is right and proper, headteachers working closely with their governing bodies need to risk-assess their buildings and following issued health advice, decide precisely what actions they can safely enact and what may be for another day. The government’s desire to encourage primary and secondary schools to open “where possible” for identified year groups sets a direction, with the pace of change being controlled as it should be, by school leaders.

A return for students is however inevitable

Over the last week, there have been louder calls for schools to return sooner, rather than later. Most of these calls are made on economic rather than educational grounds, the world is slowly but surely starting to adapt to the reality of having to work around COVID-19 and to ensure economic prosperity, parents need to be freed from the task of home-schooling.

The fact that most of the media have conveniently skipped over is that with almost no notice, schools quickly adapted to working remotely and the majority, through the hard work and dedication of their teaching staff have enabled a vast number of parents to assist home learning successfully. When we talk about schools “going back” we are, of course, talking about more significant numbers of students returning, as for teachers the task of educating has never stopped, and schools have remained open for the children of key workers and the most vulnerable.

Primary and secondary schools are working to the same and differing issues

Despite last week being half-term for most, the majority of primary school leaders spent the week in school measuring out classrooms, planning catering and placing directional signs on corridors. Many will return in some manner from this week, and a phased return will continue over the next two months.

It is very hard to impossible to see how social distancing rules can be complied with in many primary schools with a fully returned student and staff population. I have in mind many ex-colleagues in London, working from Victorian buildings with very small classrooms (which were overcrowded pre-pandemic), narrow corridors and few large meeting or even outdoor spaces. A student and staff rota are the only realistic way that this could work until such time that distancing is no longer a requirement.

Bringing additional portable learning spaces in may work for a small number of schools (assuming the government is willing to pay for these) but for many, space is the curtailing issue.

We are informed that secondary students are more susceptible to catching and transmitting the virus. Ignoring the medical detail around this for a moment as I am no scientific expert, many of the same issues mentioned for primary colleagues above also exist at secondary schools. My last school was a mixture of Victorian and new build and when full, housed almost 1400 students and over 130 staff members. Stand in any one of the shared corridors between lessons and any thoughts of social distancing are laughable.

If we are, as planned, to get the current year 10 and 12 students some contact time with specialist staff from June 15th, then it is clear that we will need to think differently.

Accept that we don’t have all the answers available now

This pandemic has challenged us all, and it is clear that trying to think months ahead in current circumstance is difficult to impossible, we have to instead work to short timelines setting clear but achievable objectives and adjusting as we go.

Getting years 10 and 12 some specialist contact time should be achievable before the summer break if the majority of the rest of the school is still learning remotely. By not rushing to fill schools before the summer break we can also create a small pocket of space and capacity within which to gain some contact time with the students who have perhaps suffered most over the enforced break, be that through lack of digital access, socio-economic and/or family issues or learning difficulties

What is clear, is that for a majority of students across the primary and secondary phases, a return to schooling as they left it in March this year, is a long way off and most will not start a phased return to school until September or October at earliest. As educators, we will have clear priorities in mind as to how best to achieve this; economists may have altogether different views, some tough decisions lie ahead.

CLEAPSS guidance in Design and technology

The guidance issued a couple of weeks ago by our colleagues at CLEAPSS is characteristically thorough and provides accurate and detailed practical advice on the challenges that now present themselves in our subject. Designing and making are both essential elements of teaching in our subject, while some of this work can be carried out in the confines of a typical classroom, we need the specialist tools, resources and equipment available only within a workshop or kitchen environment for testing, prototyping and making to take place. If we are not to severely restrict learning in design and technology over the coming months, we will need to find new and innovative ways to make specialist tools, equipment and resources available to students on a rotational basis.

The first task will be to make sure that after many months standing idle, or in many cases becoming production sites for PPE, school workshops, machines and resources are checked for safety. We will imminently be detailing support mechanisms for school leaders to enable headteachers, heads of department and Chairs of governing bodies to enact safety checks on workshops and associated resources promptly.

The practical working spaces available within each school will be different depending upon room layout, machinery and the square meterage available within that space; it is, therefore, impossible to state a standardised number of students that can gain access to a working space; that said, given the size of the majority of workshops and kitchens nationally CLEAPSS’s estimate of somewhere between 6-8 students at any given time does feel close.

I would suggest that Heads of Departments work closely with the senior leadership in their school to agree on how best to approach the teaching of the subject for their students. Do not try to plan the next six months; there are simply too many unknowns for this to be accurate, I would suggest planning from June to September to start and accept that some adjustment may be necessary over the summer break. Thoughts worth considering now:

  • How big is my workshop space/kitchen and following the requirement for students to be 2M apart at all times, how many can I safely fit into the room at any given time (including the teacher and possibly a technician)?
  • Do I need to try to complete practical lessons requiring a dedicated space with all year groups in the coming months, or am I realistically only looking at identified year groups?
  • Plan how demonstrations can be effectively given without the need to crowd around a bench. Use projection or film the practical in advance on an iPhone or other appropriate device and flip the learning
  • Can I cut down unnecessary movement in the workspace by prepping materials beforehand?
  • Do I need to temporarily rehouse tools to ensure that each student has easy access to what they may require without the need to move across the entire space?
  • Can I build in some downtime between practical lessons to clean up after one group (wiping down benches and tools with protective wipes)? The last thing any school wants is a backup of students in a crowded corridor waiting for a room to be readied for use.
  • Is the area adequately stocked up with PPE (goggles, masks, etc.)? Many schools donated large parts of their stock to clinical workers in March/April. There may be a need to urgently restock (and possibly a need to identify a budget for this).
  • Goggles and other items will need to be routinely sterilised. Milton solution is not a standard item in most workshops but will need to be ordered in bulk alongside non-alcohol protective wipes, face masks Etc.
  • All of the above can make a practical space safe for use, consider how you might reassure parents of the lengths that you are going to in order to protect all workshop/kitchen users. Many parents are nervous and would welcome detail at this stage.

Longer-term planning

As I have stated above, I would strongly advise only trying to get detail on how your department will operate up until the end of September and be ready and willing to adjust these plans.

There will be a requirement to work with senior leaders to develop an outline plan of how the school and department might operate if this situation were to continue to the end of the year or longer. There are so many variables here that detail is almost impossible, but look at each year group in turn and determine how best to schedule in practical working if the requirement for social distancing continues. Some thoughts on this include:

  • Assuming the school returns on a phased timetable, how can you best arrange some practical time for each year group?
  • What adjustments might be required to your scheme of work so that the same concepts might be covered differently or/and perhaps using alternative materials?
  • Is an extended day a possibility for some year groups allowing extended workshop/kitchen availability?
  • Will GCSE and A-Level students require dedicated time with specialist spaces/materials to mock-up and prototype possible solutions to an identified problem?
  • Can headteachers work with staff to arrange rotas that might include late starts / extended days and with staff agreement even Saturday morning opening for key groups of students?

Next summer’s exam assessment

After a great deal of thought, discussion and soul searching, all awarding organisations have followed AQA’s lead and appear to have released the NEA contexts as initially planned. We have already released some thoughts on this.  We need to work with what we have in front of us now. Still, please rest assured that all authorities are aware that a large number of students have been more disadvantaged than others through the lockdown and the same students will struggle to access this work from the start of this month. All options are still under consideration to make sure that no student is disadvantaged next summer.

These are challenging times, we do not own all the detail to make long term plans, and that can be unsettling, to say the least, but we need to take control of what we can affect and ensure that we have planned a safe return for staff and students alike, whatever form that might take.

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