IOM school openings: Q&A with Dr Al

All children on the Isle of Man are able to go back to school on Monday (yay!), but even though we’re heading into our new Manx normal, there are still plenty of questions to be asked.

We caught up with Dr Alex Allinson, Minister for Education, Sport and Culture, to find out more.

I can go to the pub this week – why aren’t all children back at school?

“Because we needed to have an orderly transition,” Dr Al says.

“The plan was to open schools on Monday, which we did, we then had to get rid of all the barriers and tapes and the 1m rules – stuff that we’d put up in preparation for that.”

He says the department also needed to assess staffing needs and redeploy people to undertake school cleanings, adding: “I didn’t want anything to go wrong.”

“To ask teachers to adapt very quickly and bring all children back too soon might have caused issues – and I didn’t want to have any child turned away at the front desk or at the front gate.”

Did the news that social distancing was over, throw a spanner in your plans to bring children back more slowly?

“No, it was a game changer,” Dr Al says.

“When you start doing social distancing in schools you dramatically reduce the number of people you can get into them – the capacity becomes a real issue.”

At two metres social distancing 25% of children can go back to school and at one metre 50% can.

“One of the aspects of school is it’s not just about education – it’s the socialisation and the wellbeing of the children,” he adds.

Are you going to have staffing issues with people still shielding?

“There are staff that won’t be coming back to school for the time being because they’re having to shield,” he explains.

“What we’re doing is working with head teachers so those teachers who have to remain out of the school for the foreseeable future can carry on working from home – perhaps supporting some of those children similarly with serious medical problems who don’t feel able to come back into the school.”

Dr Al adds: “We’ve learned a lot in terms of remote learning over the last couple of months.

“We’ve figured out what works for certain children and what doesn’t.

“I’m keen on sort of banking those positives out of this very difficult situation so that as we move forward we can actually use those in terms of those children who can’t come back to school for various reasons – any sort of illness, even those children who are suspended and excluded from school, can carry on their education at home.”

Why couldn’t all the teaching just be done via video conferencing?

“Throughout this pandemic I’ve been working quite closely with King William’s College and the principle there,” Dr Al says.

“They made the pragmatic decision to close the entire school and move completely to teaching virtually – the other schools on the Isle of Man had to do both, they did face-to-face lessons and virtual teaching.”

He goes on to say that different schools use different platforms and methods, and adds: “Coming on from this though there is a need, I think, to have a more uniform system of remote learning.”

Kids have missed months of classroom education, what’s the plan to rectify that?

“Teachers will be encouraged to assess their educational needs, especially if they have not been engaging in remote learning,” says Dr Al.

“There will be further discussion about what measures are necessary during this year to allow all to catch up so that their education doesn’t become another victim of coronavirus.”

What about next year’s GCSEs and A-Levels?

They’re “absolutely” going to be happening.

You are going to be able to resit if you want in October.

“It’s not just us, it’s the whole of the British Isles,” Dr Al says.

“We’re going to be working with those exam boards to make sure no Manx student is left behind.”

Remote learning has meant that lots of those children are up-to-date, but schools will work with those who need extra help, he adds.

Do you think we’re going to see a big socio-economic divide in kids’ education after school closures?

“I think that unfortunately you are correct,” Dr Al says.

“The Institute for Fiscal Studies carried out a survey in April to May and showed that in England children from better-off households were spending 30% more time each day on educational activities than children from the poorest fifth of households.

“There will be an urgent need to correct this divide through face to face teaching but also providing access to online teaching over the summer through the loan of internet-enabled devices and personalised educational packages.”

How will those children in need of support be chosen?

“You can’t do it on a crude basis,” Dr Al explains.

He says teachers can assess children’s needs individually once they’re back in the classroom, as educational deficits can be down to a whole range of factors.

“It has to be needs tested rather than means-tested throughout all this,” he adds.

If there’s a second wave could schools close again?

“We have some really good evidence that school closure doesn’t actually help a huge amount in terms of preventing community spread and pupils at schools aren’t responsible for a huge amount of community spread,” he says.

“The next phase from stay safe would be staying responsible, and part of that will be if we were to have a second wave and what would we need to bring in – would we need to bring in social distancing in schools rather than close them all together?”

Are we going to see a shift in the curriculum to cover the Isle of Man’s history with the slave trade and racism?

“Absolutely.”

Dr Al goes on: “I’ve worked on a paper for the council of ministers in terms of the work that goes on already in schools.

“The history curriculum is really quite comprehensive about slavery but also deprivation and the civil rights movement.

“What we also do in terms of the non-GCSE core curriculum is teach about diversity about questions about race and discrimination.

“But on the basis of this (the Black Lives Matter movement), we’re looking at that again and developing a better core curriculum that will deal with a lot of these issues but also acknowledge the role in terms of Isle of Man history – that we were part of the slave trade at the time.

“We did contribute to it, so we need to be aware of that, because only by analysing the past can you actually improve the future.”

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