15 September 2020 

The final report from the Back to School study reveals the concerns of young people, families and school staff returning to school after the closures as part of the UK’s coronavirus response. The report presents rapid analysis of data from interviews with 13 school staff from seven schools and 20 families from eight schools, conducted between 15 July and 4 September 2020.

Participants included:

  • Heads and assistant heads
  • Teachers
  • Special Educational Needs Coordinators
  • 17 young people (mostly years 7/8/10)
  • 20 parents

To understand how schools can give young people, parents and teachers the best support, the Back to School study examined the views of young people, parents, carers and school staff about returning to  school after the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK, including views on measures to reduce infection risk.

The main findings were:

Home learning: Young people struggled with the lack of socialising and teacher interaction. For some, home learning benefits included fewer distractions, less stress for some young people, especially those with Special Educational Needs (SEN). Staff found it a poor substitute for face-to-face teaching and were concerned about unequal access to technology and space, which would deepen the gap in educational attainment between different socioeconomic groups.

Feelings about returning to school: Families were keen for young people to return unless they had clinically vulnerable or high-risk family members, for example those from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds. Some young people were concerned about returning to socialising after lockdown, using public transport and catching up on learning, especially in year 10. Staff had concerns about reopening, including: COVID-19 infection risk (to their family and to students and staff), the pressure on teachers not to spread COVID-19, feasibility of risk reduction measures, reduced staff numbers, young people’s emotional wellbeing and mental health, and supporting young people who are struggling.

Opinion on Government guidance: Despite agreeing that schools must reopen, families and staff had very little trust in the Government due to their repeated U-turns (for example on exam grades), and guidelines were viewed as unscientific, unclear and untimely.

Views on social distancing and COVID-19 risk reduction measures in schools: Families and staff felt social distancing in schools would be difficult.  Although year group bubbles were seen as a pragmatic solution, there were concerns about crossover from socialising and siblings.  Staff were concerned about whether students would comply with new measures. Risk reduction measures were expected to impact learning, particularly for young people with additional needs, those who struggle with structured learning, and years 11 and 13 taking exams.

Interview participants suggested a number of ways to improve the return to school. These included schools taking a supportive approach to reopening, considering the anticipated emotional impact on young people of returning to school and possible future lockdown.

There was also the need for clear, nuanced, timely guidance for schools, focusing on PPE, exams, local lockdowns, young peoples’ wellbeing, supporting SEN and catch-up teaching. Families wanted clear, consistent messaging and reminders to young people on new risk reduction measures emphasising the ’collective good’, and well-thought-out enforcement of new rules.

Families also wanted more clarity on the symptoms of COVID-19, clear and easy methods for reporting, and sensitive school responses to positive tests. In addition, extra funding was also suggested for catch-up tutoring, emotional support, supplies and equipment for learning and hygiene and additional staff and space.

Download the final Back to School rapid report.

Further information 

About the NIHR 

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is the nation’s largest funder of health and care research. The NIHR:

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The NIHR was established in 2006 to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research, and is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. In addition to its national role, the NIHR supports applied health research for the direct and primary benefit of people in low- and middle-income countries, using UK aid from the UK government.