Pupils starting secondary school in England may need to be “retaught” subjects they missed during the coronavirus lockdown, while others may learn a narrower range of subjects or drop GCSE courses to help them catch up, according to the government’s official guidance for schools reopening in September.
However, Gavin Williamson, the education secretary for England, rejected suggestions that pupils would not be taught a full curriculum when they returned, despite the Department for Education’s guidance detailing “exceptional circumstances” in which pupils would instead focus on English and maths.
The guidance received a mixed response from school leaders, including criticism for vague or unworkable rules around such issues as social distancing, school transport and protective “bubbles” containing potentially hundreds of pupils and staff.
Back to school: what can pupils in England expect from September?
The DfE’s guidance explicitly states that some pupils in both primary and secondary schools will need to make up for lost time on core subjects, such as literacy and maths, to the detriment of other subjects.
“Schools may consider it appropriate to suspend some subjects for some pupils in exceptional circumstances,” the guidance states.
It says later: “In exceptional circumstances, it may be in the best interests of a year 11 pupil to discontinue an examined subject because the school judges that, for example, they would achieve significantly better in their remaining subjects as a result, especially in GCSE English and mathematics.”
However, Williamson said at a Downing Street press conference: “The idea that there is going to be a watered-down curriculum is totally, totally untrue.
“There’s going to be a full and total curriculum. This is going to be delivered for our children across all subjects.”
The DfE’s guidance also says pupils in year seven, commonly the first year of secondary school in England, may need to repeat parts of the primary school syllabus they missed out on during the lockdown which closed schools to most pupils from March onwards.
While some pupils are to receive extra time to catch up, those taking A-level and GCSE exams will in most cases still be examined on the full course content, despite also missing several months of classroom teaching.
GCSEs and A-level exams will go ahead next summer, but the exam regulator Ofqual has proposed starting them in June, rather than May, to give some extra time to catch up. Ofqual said it would not reduce the course content for A-levels or for the compulsory GCSE subjects of maths and English, with teachers expected to deliver the full curriculum.
Jules White, a secondary school headteacher in West Sussex, said: “The government have moved in the right direction by giving schools more flexibility to fully open in September. Now they must really bite the bullet and reduce content in GCSE and A-level exams for next year.
“Too much learning time has been lost for the vast majority of students to simply ‘catch up’ on huge swathes of content and knowledge. We don’t need to dumb things down, but asking students to sit two high-quality GCSE maths papers rather than three, for example, would make sense for students and their teachers.”
Nansi Ellis, the assistant general secretary of the National Education Union, described the changes to GCSEs and A-levels as minimal and said the government’s expectations were unrealistic. “In the majority of subjects, the expectation that the full specification can be covered by next summer, after many months of lost teaching time, still remains,” Ellis said.
There was also criticism of the government’s decision to drop any limits on the numbers of pupils who could be arranged in a “bubble” within schools, one of the few active social distancing measures that the guidance retains within schools.
The DfE removed any reference to specific sizes, and instead said that primary schools and the first stage of secondary schools would be advised to place pupils in groups based on their class. But it also said that later years and larger schools could instead use year group-sized bubbles, which in some secondary schools could have more than 200 pupils each.
The use of bubbles is intended to limit the scope of a coronavirus outbreak within a school, so that testing and isolation would be needed only for the members of a bubble rather than an entire school. Teachers on social media mocked the DfE’s bubbles as “colanders” after it was found that the guidance allows teachers and other staff to operate across bubbles and allowed mixing of pupils for “specialist teaching, wrap-around care and transport”, while siblings may be in different groups within the same school.
Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, said the late publication of the DfE’s guidance put school leaders and teachers under pressure to finalise arrangements for the next school year.
“The government has been asleep at the wheel but heads and staff cannot be left to do this alone. Labour is calling for a cross-party taskforce to focus urgently on getting the necessary arrangements in place so that all students can return safely in September,” Green said.
There were no signs of a threatened crackdown on school absences when pupils returned in autumn. The DfE’s guidance says “the usual rules on school attendance will apply”, while Downing Street said headteachers would retain some leeway.
A spokesperson for the prime minister said: “Returning to school in September will be mandatory. It’s always the case that headteachers do have some discretion. They know their pupils and their family situations. But, in general, children need to get back into school and get back learning again.”
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