I'm writing this message to all Barnsley parents and carers who are preparing to send their children and young people back to school or college in September.
Barnsley schools have been open throughout the pandemic
Barnsley's schools have continued to remain open, initially for vulnerable children and children of key workers. In early June, based upon and subject to the five key tests set by the government and Department for Education guidance, our primary schools safely welcomed children back in nursery, reception, year 1 and year 6. On 15 June, secondary schools, sixth form and further education colleges offered some face-to-face support for year 10 and year 12 students, alongside the full-time provision they were offering to priority groups.
These arrangements were made very carefully, with weekly meetings between the council and public health, and our school leaders.
Education is so important for our children and young people
Children and young people have been severely affected by the loss of their education and learning, with the vast majority not having been able to attend school or college since 20 March.
Our schools and colleges have worked hard at delivering home learning, and you'll have worked even harder in supporting your own children with this. Home learning cannot replicate the education, face to face direct teaching and interaction, and the feedback and encouragement that's delivered in school. It also cannot replicate the social and recreational opportunities that schools and college provide to children and young people.
Going to school and college gives children and young people an education, the passport to better opportunities such as good employment, a good income and lifestyle. It helps them to be employment-ready by developing their social and life skills, with consistent boundaries and structures such as getting up and going to school every day.
Going back to school in September
We're all yearning for some normality back into our lives; schools and colleges offer just this for our children and young people. I also understand how anxious some of you may be feeling about your children going back.
Education is the key to children and young people's futures, and while not impossible, it can be very difficult for children to catch up on lost learning, and it can have a long-lasting impact.
So, my message to you as parents and carers, is that while we cannot eliminate all risk of coronavirus (COVID-19), the arrangements and safeguards in schools and colleges make them as safe as any place at this time. Balanced with this must be the risk to children and young people of not receiving an education and the long-term impact that this potentially has for their futures.
Our aspiration is that all children in Barnsley will return to school in September.
Given that the government has announced that school attendance in September will be mandatory, the suspension of fines for non-attendance during the pandemic will now end. However, we'll be reluctant to issue fines as we understand that for some children, returning to school after such a long time will be hard. Some families might need support, which we're fully committed to providing.
Homeschooling delivered by schools and colleges will also end where children can but do not attend school or college. If you're thinking about electively home educating your children, this is something that you need to consider.
Arrangements in schools
During the summer term, I visited some schools to see for myself, what the arrangements looked like. While we cannot mitigate and remove all the risk, I felt greatly reassured by the robust arrangements that schools had put into place. In the period between 23 March and the summer holidays, we saw the numbers of children in Barnsley safely attending school significantly increase.
I'm confident that schools are as safe a place to be as anywhere else during the pandemic, given the stringent measures, controls and arrangements that are in place.
Public Health England has been analysing the impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) in schools, and the evidence to date has indicated that schools are not a major driver of the virus in the community. Equally, research by the British Medical Journal shows that children and young people who have the virus are typically asymptomatic (they may have the virus but do not have any symptoms), or they might have a minor illness.
Travelling to school
I want to thank all of you who responded to the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive Survey, which has helped to form their plans for children and young people returning to school. You can find out more information about school and college travel at Travel South Yorkshire.
We've been working closely with schools to help manage drop off and collection times and some schools may offer staggered start and finishing times. This is an excellent opportunity to try new ways of getting to school. I would very much encourage using personal transport budgets for children with special educational needs, and active travel wherever possible such as walking and cycling. It's good for our health and our environment.
I want to offer my congratulations to all our A-Level and GCSE students
I'm delighted to report that we've seen significant, further improvements this year in Barnsley; a testament to the standard and quality of our schools. You should feel incredibly proud of your achievements.
It's great to see the continued progress at GCSE level in English and Maths at grade 4 and above (which leaves us in line with or above the national average for both subjects), and improvement across the board in traditional subjects, such as geography, history, science and languages.
As well as taking advice from your school, a helpline is in place for year 11 students who received their GCSE results. It's been arranged by I Know I Can, Barnsley Council's young people service, with collaboration from schools. It's staffed by experts from the Targeted Information, Advice and Guidance service (TIAG), who are on hand to advise on educational and vocational options. If you need any support, please contact them on (01226) 775400. The phone lines will be open from 10am to 7pm from Thursday 20 August to Wednesday 26 August (weekend not included).
We've seen the significant impact on young people this year who were unable to take their A-Level and GCSE exams. Many of you had your results initially downgraded by the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual). Ofqual initially considered non-exam assessment and mock exam results as well as the historical grades and performance of schools. This does not take into account areas like Barnsley, where education and school performance have significantly improved.
This approach penalised our young people, and you deserved better. We were all, as I'm sure you were, greatly relieved that your voices were heard by the government, who announced that students would be given the grades estimated by their teachers, who know you best of all.
At the time of writing this, some young people taking a BTEC will not yet have received their results, but I wish you every success.
Despite the pandemic, you should all take confidence from your results and continue to pursue your ambitions and aspirations.
We're continually monitoring the situation in Barnsley, adapting our approach as required
We do this through regular analysis of a range of different data and information and with support from our health and social care partners across the borough, and Public Health England.
Our leadership team continue to monitor this data, so we're ready to respond quickly to any emerging issues, including any potential impact on education settings.
All schools and colleges have a named public health officer. We're providing public health advice to help them complete their risk assessments and develop plans about what to do in the event of any suspected or positive Coronavirus (COVID-19) case in their settings. These plans include what needs to happen to reduce the risks to students, staff and the wider community.
Finally, you will do what is right for your children, but please be assured that schools, our children's services and public health team, and our partners are here to support you. If you're in any doubt about the arrangements in your child's school, please contact them.
Executive Director of Children's Services, Barnsley Council