KLF Trust letter Sunday 17th May 2020
17th May 2020
Dear Parents and Carers
We hope and trust that you and your families are in good health and somehow finding the resilience and forbearance to sustain you through this extraordinary, horrific time. Now that our society has begun to stand up and give thanks for the heroism of previously under-appreciated front-line workers, it feels appropriate to commend you on your own day-to-day heroism (also taken for granted) in manoeuvring around the obstacles and challenges that are laid in the path of any family caring for a child with a disability, in overcoming the setbacks and dead-ends that assail you in your journey. The events of the past two months have piled on new levels of complication and adversity and yet you have been managing to nurture indefatigable hope, adaptability and endurance to keep your children safe and secure while around them all familiarity and certainty has crumbled. You have been forgiving, you have been resilient, you have been heroic.
In the past week, following the announcement by the Prime Minister of the partial re-opening of schools from June 1st, the sense of "all in it together" seems to have vanished to be replaced by catcalling and playground theatrics, an adversarial tone which sets unions against government, staff against employers and, in the worst case scenario schools against families. Our work and our ethos has always been underpinned by the positivity of our relationship with families, our understanding that we are here to serve and support you in your titanic struggle to have your children's basic needs met, to offer them a better tomorrow. Today, faced with a challenge beyond any we have ever known, we reach out to you seeking partnership, seeking a degree of consensus, seeking solidarity, as we are faced with making decisions which will carry the most profound consequence. At both Red Kite and Kingsley, leadership teams are contriving to build systems and environments which will enable children to return to their schools with some confidence that their health and well-being can be safely managed. We are working through the 'knowns' but there remains a battery of 'unknowns', possibly 'unthinkables', which will have to be taken under consideration in due course.
Over the next few days, we will be inviting you to make an impossible decision. We are eager to respect the wishes of all families and whatever call you make you will have our unequivocal and unconditional backing. We will ask you whether you wish your child to return to school from June 1st, and it is crucial to us that you are equipped with the best knowledge we hold as you make that decision, and here we attempt to present this information without favour or bias. In this decision, there is no right or wrong, no safe or dangerous, merely a question of doing the best you can in unpredictable and evolving circumstances.
The case for returning:
Respite: After nine weeks of isolation many of you are on your knees, exhausted from the endless challenge of coping with the relentless demand that comes with parenting a child with complex needs. Stripped of professional support, alienated from family resources, and with no ability to fall back on 'sure things' (McDonald's, Kids Play, public parks etc), you have been your child's teacher, doctor, entertainer and cook as well as all the other roles that constitute 'parent'. You have been doing this 24/7, meeting impossible levels of demand and your wells must surely be running dry by now. The breathing space that would be offered by allowing your child to be at school for a few hours must feel irresistibly tempting and we are, as always, desperate to have our children back where they are happy and progressing. We miss them terribly, and our schools are not schools without them.
Employment: Many of you have, throughout the lockdown, been required to continue to work, either by attending your place of employment as a key worker, or by hijacking bench space or a corner of the kitchen table to do the best you can at working from home. Now workers have been called upon to resume their normal labours and for most, this involves setting aside home roles to undertake responsibility in the outside world. Employers, whose livelihoods have been compromised massively during this time, are desperate to re-engage business and this pressure is cascaded on you.
Economy: The devastation wrought over the past eight weeks has caused enormous damage to personal and national economies. Many of you will have lost a great deal of money due to not being able to undertake your jobs and cumulatively, the national picture is one of debt and recession that will take many years to repair. Coming at the end of a decade of austerity this is bleak, indeed. In the spirit of duty and 'doing your bit', you will be eager to return to the workforce and begin the process of rebuilding and recovery in order to secure your family's future and the future of the nation.
Science: Statistically, it is clear that we have passed the peak in regards to the suffering associated with coronavirus. We are assured by national leaders that the threat is ebbing and that the time for healing and repair has come. In other areas of life there is some relaxing of the stringent controls over people's freedoms as well as plenty of evidence on the roads and in towns and cities of people resuming normal life. There is considerable dispute about the 'five tests' but the R figure is regarded as being at a level that affords us scope to re-engage with daily life.
The case against returning:
Staffing: Even at this late stage, a fortnight before the proposed reopening of the schools, we are far from certain over the number of staff that may be available to greet and work with your children. We recognise and celebrate the courage and dedication of our teams who have made such sacrifices to ensure some semblance of ordinariness throughout the period of closure. However, a significant number, either due to their own health or due to the need to protect and shield members of their families and households, have been in isolation and will continue in isolation for some weeks to come. Many of our staff have children of their own who may not be returning, and therefore, as parents, they will be unable to attend. Furthermore, the trade unions and professional associations of the education sector, are adamant in their opposition to the proposal to reopen and advising staff that it would be unsafe to do so. While there is evidence that children may not present with symptoms, it is far from certain that they will not transmit the infection and, working in close quarters as we must, there is no meaningful way to protect staff (short of surgical level PPE). The guidance is that staff working in education should not wear PPE in the discharge of their duties unless they are working with a child who is presenting with symptoms. We are familiar with the use of protective equipment for intimate care, but there is enormous anxiety around the generalised use of such kit. The behavioural presentation of our children and the visual impact of familiar staff, head-to-toe in blue, suggests that this would be distressing and dysregulating for the children, while the potential consequence of going without PPE does not bear thinking about . For these reasons, we have no idea how many, if any, of our staff will be available to work with your children on their return.
Science: Although it feels like an eternity since we encountered coronavirus, so much remains unknown. The position relating to children - statistics regarding developing full symptoms, whether they are asymptomatic carriers and transmitters, the associated conditions that have afflicted a significant number of children both here and abroad, are all factors with great uncertainty and worthy of deep reflection in evaluating risk. We are acutely conscious that, in admitting a child to the school on any given day, we also admit those with whom they have had contact, and even those who have had contact with people the children had been in contact with. Without the facility to minutely keep track of everybody's movement, we are exposing ourselves to an enormous number of potential infection points.
That the British Medical Association have thrown their considerable weight and influence behind the stance taken by trade unions suggests that the threat is very real and will remain real. People continue to die in shocking numbers, reduced from peak, but nonetheless on a scale that dwarfs Hillsborough, Manchester Arena and other tragedies, and they do so on a daily basis.
The programme for exiting from lockdown continues to prohibit the gathering of significant groups in places of worship, places of leisure, and most places of work. In fact, schools appear to be the only context in which the gathering of people in close proximity and without protection, seems to be approved. This suggests that the scale of the threat, while diminished somewhat, remains significant and the consequences, cataclysmic. Should the virus permeate the flimsy defences of a school, the exposure of children and their families, of staff and their families, of support services such as transport and their families, is likely to generate a second wave with repercussions matching or exceeding that of the first wave.
Children returning to school from June 1 will not be returning to Red Kite or Kingsley as we know them. We all imagine rejoicing in a great coming together, delighting in each other's friendship and company, and launching into our learning adventures with wild abandon. Sadly, this will not be the case. For several weeks now, leaders have been working on piecing together a provision that will have safety as its primary consideration and one in which learning will not be such a priority. Every minute detail of every facet of our operation will be reviewed, evaluated for risk, and rebuilt in such a way as to minimise contact between people. While we continue to plan the details, it is emerging that enormous changes in practice will be required:
- In his speech the Prime Minister spoke about provision reopening for Reception, Years 1 & 6 and some face-to-face contact for Year 10. The guidance for special schools was entirely different and we are being encouraged to gradually increase our offer across the entire age range. This process will be driven by an evaluation / risk assessment matrix that takes account of each child’s context.
- Rigorous and continuous cleaning regimes will be implemented by all staff, not just cleaners and site staff but including all support staff, teachers and senior leaders.
- Children will have to be allocated in small groups in rooms throughout the school and confined there throughout most of the day (perhaps not their familiar classroom and perhaps not their familiar staff).
- Much of the equipment and enriching experiences that are such a feature and highlight of the children's school day will be unavailable to them - the pool, due to intimate proximity at changing; the Ark / Beehive: to minimise transference of physical contact with the equipment; music, again repeated touching of equipment; playground installations: impossible to maintain safely when used by many children in succession.
- External professionals will be unavailable to us as they work in multiple sites and we must protect against cross-infection.
- Drop-off and collection times must be completely reorganised as this constitutes the point of greatest vulnerability, our broadest interface with the outside world.
- Transport: we have no idea about the scale of change that would be required to make transport safe to an acceptable degree. The capacity of NCC transport to deliver our children across staggered start and end times is in question as is their ability to maintain even minimal distancing between children when several are on the vehicle together.
- Lunchtimes: we are highly unlikely to approve a hot meal provision which would require a succession of people coming to and from the serving area and we will certainly be requiring all children and staff to eat in their designated spaces.
- PPE: we have yet to finalise a decision in this area but, as responsible employers, it would be neither legal nor appropriate for us to direct anybody to work in conditions that they themselves deem unsafe.
- It is highly probable that any aspect of intimate care will require PPE at the highest level we are able to provide.
- Learning: our priority for those children who will attend, will be to secure their safety and well-being. A focus on learning will be realistic only with those children for whom the challenge of learning provides self-regulation and reassurance.
A personal view from Donna and Tom as Headteachers
We are intensely aware that the decisions we take over the next two weeks can have ramifications that are the stuff of nightmares. We could not live with ourselves if any person, child, staff member, associated worker or family member, were to fall victim to this vicious infection as a consequence of a decision we made. Despite the solidarity shown across our leadership groups, with our staff, and the unstinting support of governors and directors, we feel frightened and alone. Our greatest fear at this point is of failing you and thereby, of failing your child. From every direction we are being flooded with a barrage of often contradictory information which has now become inflammatory as we search for that sweet spot, somewhere between scaremongering and recklessness. In recent weeks we have said over and again that these are extraordinary times and the measures we take are equally extraordinary. As we risk-assess our environment, our context and our systems we find ourselves in a position whereby nothing will reach a level that we would normally deem safe. The likelihood of a tragic outcome is high and will increase exponentially as we grow our attending cohort. The consequences of failure in any measure we implement are devastating to a degree that a headteacher should never have to countenance. In these extraordinary times, you also are subject to extraordinary pressures and, recognising your need for respite, your need to resume work, your need to normalise family life, we will do everything we can to offer a provision, but can only say that this provision will not be safe, merely the safest we can make it. In this, we beg your tolerance and forgiveness.
While we will do everything in our power to meet the needs of all families, you will have to accept that there is a limit to the extent to which we are prepared to expose ourselves, our staff and your children to risk. Therefore, we will be evaluating the circumstances of every child and family and allocating places based on these evaluations. It is extremely unlikely that any child will be offered a full time, five-day provision throughout, and it is unlikely that every family wishing their child to return will have that wish fulfilled. In allocating places, we will do so in the interests of the child first and foremost, the safety of our community secondly, and thirdly, the well-being of the family. We apologise for any distress and disappointment that this may generate, but we are confident that, in following this process we will be acting to the very best of our abilities and to the fullest extent of our safe capacity.
Thank you for bearing with us through this lengthy communication. Together we find ourselves at a crux, following a roadmap which could equally lead to triumph or disaster and we are impossibly burdened with making decisions whose consequences will only be revealed over the course and passage of time. At such times of crisis, we cling more than ever to our core ethos and values and our ethos and values are inextricably intertwined with the safety and welfare of families. There is no simple trade-off, no middle ground, and no tweak or adjustment that will square the circle in this instance. You are confronted by an impossible decision and an irreconcilable conflict of priorities, and we are charged with plotting a sane course through insanity. These are once-in-a-lifetime circumstances (at least we profoundly hope so) and our reliance on each other has been, and will be, sorely tested. Together we are at a crux, and together we will come through this. This Will Pass.
Debbie Withers MBE (Chair of the Board of Directors, Kingsley Learning Foundation)
Steve Cullingford-Agnew (Chair of Governors, Kingsley Learning Foundation)
Donna Luck (Headteacher, Red Kite Special Academy)
Tom O Dwyer (Headteacher, Kingsley Special Academy; CEO Kingsley Learning Foundation)