A socially distanced language lesson at Longdendale, Greater Manchester
A socially distanced language lesson at Longdendale, Greater Manchester © Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

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Some secondary schools and colleges in England are planning for a “new normal” of remote learning rotas as coronavirus disruption rises but teachers warn that the “digital divide” threatens to dramatically deepen inequality in education.

This term the government has required schools to offer a normal timetable of face-to-face teaching. But with coronavirus forcing some half a million pupils to self isolate and the situation expected to worsen, academy trusts, sixth form colleges and teaching unions are planning systems where children alternate between learning remotely and attending school.

Advocates say rotas, which many sixth-form colleges have already implemented, curb infections and reduce unplanned closures. But they also risk exacerbating the “digital divide” as disadvantaged students without access to laptops or the internet struggle to work at home.

Steve Chalke, head of the Oasis Academies group, said its 52 schools across the country were drawing up contingency plans including week-on, week-off rotas following Covid-19 outbreaks that mean whole year groups are regularly sent home.

“The truth is this is the new normal,” he said, adding that “creative” timetables might be the only way pupils and staff could safely distance in schools this winter.

“Remote learning is going to be a part of a child’s education for the foreseeable future, but it’s now happening randomly,” he said. “We’re trying to squeeze all these kids into the space and we have outbreaks every day. We’re asking, would it be wiser to introduce a rota system we are actually in control of?”

The Academies Enterprise Trust, which runs 58 schools, is already running “lockdown drills” to familiarise parents and teachers with remote learning, and has purchased equipment for all pupils that need it.

Separately, the National Education Union, the largest teachers’ union, on Friday wrote to Gavin Williamson, education secretary for England, advocating a rota system that would see half a school’s pupils attending lessons and half learning remotely.

“We think government should now be seriously planning for the introduction of secondary school rota systems,” Kevin Courtney, the NEU’s general secretary said. “They could strike an appropriate balance between keeping education running and controlling the virus.”

Ministers have made clear that schools and colleges should remain open to all pupils whenever possible and some school leaders agree. Saiqa Liaqat, director of education at Core Education Trust — an academy chain in Birmingham — said the high levels of vulnerability and digital poverty among its pupils meant rotas were probably “not right” for its circumstances.

However, the number of children suffering disruption as a result of coronavirus is rising. Government data published on Tuesday showed that attendance at state schools last Thursday was 86 per cent, the lowest since term started in September and down from 89 per cent the previous week.

Department for Education guidance advises that if the situation deteriorates further schools could, on a case-by-case basis and in consultation with local health authorities, enter tier 2 of its Covid-19 framework, which is separate from the government’s three-tier system of local lockdowns. For secondary schools, this means introducing a rota system.

School leaders said they were unclear about when these tiers should be introduced.

“It feels a bit dismayingly confusing,” Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said. “You kind of assume that if you’re in a tier 3 area, that one of those higher educational tiers would kick in, but it doesn’t seem that’s the case.”

Mr Barton said schools were better prepared to run remote learning than earlier in the year, but “woeful under-resourcing” meant disadvantaged students would be held back. According to the Children's Commissioner, an estimated 9 per cent of families in the UK do not have a laptop, desktop or tablet at home. 

An estimated 9% of UK families do not have a laptop, desktop or tablet at home
An estimated 9% of UK families do not have a laptop, desktop or tablet at home © Andrew Fosker/Alamy

Teachers say a government programme to buy laptops for schools to bridge the “digital divide” had been disorganised and inadequate.

On Friday, teachers learnt the government had slashed the number of laptops allocated to schools by up to 80 per cent, leaving teachers scrambling to work out how students without technology would learn from home.

Many sixth-form colleges, for 16 to 18-year-olds, have already adopted rota systems because their large year groups, which sometimes exceed 1,000 students, mean they cannot operate the government’s bubble system for each year.

At Petroc sixth form college in Exeter, staff have helped to develop an app that models how adjustments such as rotas, the number of pupils in a bubble and the availability of testing might affect the spread of infection.

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More than 100 colleges have signed up to use it, and after modelling showed infections would be curbed by keeping students away from college Petroc introduced a rota system.

“Having people off site was helpful for us — we’ve only had three positive cases,” said principal Sean Mackney. “The second positive case had been off school on the digital part of their rota for the 48 hours before symptoms, so we didn’t have to self isolate anyone.”

However, Mr Mackney acknowledged that he did “have concerns about digital poverty”. “We have a number of learners in rural areas — their home broadband is not good — and we have bought a lot of devices and put them out to learners who need them. But colleges have had no extra funding to do that.”

The DfE said it was “updating our allocation process [of computer equipment] to more accurately align orders with the number of students schools typically have self-isolating”. More than 340,000 devices were being made available this term to help disadvantaged children, officials said.

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