“Variability” in eligible children returning to school in Hertfordshire, councillors told

Schools across Hertfordshire are seeing a “great deal of variability” in the numbers of children who have returned to the classroom this week, councillors have heard.

Thursday, 4th June 2020, 11:25 am
Updated Thursday, 4th June 2020, 11:26 am

And in some schools – it has been claimed – as few as one in three eligible youngsters have actually gone back.

All schools have been closed – to all except the children of essential workers – since March 23, in a bid to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

But on Monday (June 1) children in reception, year one and year six were allowed to return – so long as places were available at their school.

School stock image

The county council does not yet have data on the number of children who returned this week.

But at a meeting of the council’s special cabinet panel on Wednesday (June 3) Labour leader Cllr Judi Billing pointed to the “astonishing variations” in her own local schools.

She highlighted one school in Hitchin where they had welcomed back 90 per cent of eligible pupils.

But she said that another school had seen less then a third of their eligible children back in the classroom.

And she asked for county council data on the number of youngsters that had returned to school across the county to be made available as quickly as possible.

Operations director Simon Newland told councillors that as far as he was aware, all primary schools – except one – were open for at least some of the eligible year groups.

He said there was “a great deal of variability between schools” in terms of the provision available and parental take-up.

But he said the council was waiting for further information on attendance to come from the Department for Education.

“We don’t yet have a clear picture,” he said.

In terms of provision, he said the variation could reflect factors such as staffing availability, due to vulnerability or shielding, and the nature of the school accommodation.

And it may also, he said, be a greater challenge for infant schools to open for a large proportion of their pupils compared to a primary school.

But he said the authority had plans over the coming weeks to work with schools to make the offer “more consistent” and, where possible, to help schools to open more widely.

“I don’t want to suggest there’s a single model and that some schools are right and some schools are wrong,” he said.

“What schools do is heavily influenced by their local circumstances. But at the same time it’s quite right for us, where appropriate, to challenge them on what they are doing – in view of the importance of getting these pupils back into school for those young people,”

Cllr Billing also highlighted how frightened some parents were to send their children back to school.

Mr Newland said there was an issue of “confidence, saying: “. . . there’s considerable fear in the community about the risks of attending school and I think that fear is generally somewhat over-stated.”

And executive member for education, libraries ad localism Cllr Terry Douris – who praised school staff for their commitment and preparations for June 1 – said he hoped that at some stage those parents may reconsider.

Meanwhile Liberal Democrat leader Cllr Stephen Giles-Medhurst also highlighted the continuing educational needs of those children who may not be able to return to school because of their family circumstances.

But Mr Newland said that as schools reopened the ability of schools to provide a parallel remote learning service would be “pretty limited”.

“I think where children have to remain out of school – for example where they are clinically extremely vulnerable or shielding somebody who is extremely vulnerable – then schools will make a particular effort to make sure that those children receive good remote learning opportunities.

“But where children could come in to school and their parents elect for them not to do so, then I think it’s unfortunately the case that they will start to suffer a deterioration in what’s offered to them.”

Mr Newland told the panel that this was why it was really important for the council and schools to encourage parents to send their children in, once they are eligible and a place is available for them.

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