The can has been shaken, so we must proceed with caution

14 May 2020, 23:04

Re-opening campus is a high-risk, high-stress, physical and emotional challenge, says Stuart Rimmer. Here are some guiding principles to keep in mind

At my school there was a boy called Dave. He was well off and (mostly) good hearted, so used to buy cans of Tango at break time for fellow students who were less well off (me). This was usually well received, except that around one in three times Dave would secretly,  violently shake the can before handing it over, resulting in the poor student (still me) getting an explosion that normally led to arguments and a massive uncontrollable mess. 

This crisis has been punctuated by daily changing, uninformed and contradictory but mostly benign DfE guidance notes. Generated by 23-year-old Cambridge graduate policy geeks, who have been turfed out of Sanctuary Buildings and are now located in their childhood bedrooms in the Surrey commuter belt, with their PCs set to rapid-fire, like Custer’s cavalry trying to repel the natives, the latest campus re-opening guidance being handed over is a bit like Dave’s can. 

This view can be juxtaposed with the ESFA response, which I have experienced as more sensible, steady, measured and interested in identifying risks and recognising the sovereignty of individual corporations to make decisions in the context of health and safety law and colleges doing our very best. 

I have reminded my governors that guidance is simply that. It does not mandate, but suggests. It points to what we should or could do, but not what we must. This is an important distinction, especially where the weight of culpability rests. While this remains the case, our paramount concern must be the safety of staff and students. This will require a re-opening approach based on pragmatism, phasing and principle-led decisions. 

I wish also to delineate two distinct issues – that of opening in September against issues of closing off this academic year. The former is still to be fully explored, while the latter is managing amid crisis, with action born out of necessity, not detailed planning. The approaches may be governed by similar H&S rules but the emphasis must be different. 

I propose that to close off this year the focus needs to be based on three principles.

1. The safety of staff and students is the primary concern. Safe systems of working should be defined locally and will require detailed risk assessments at college, building, course and individual level. Risks cannot be eliminated but can be better understood and mitigated. Staff morale and commitment through the crisis has been high in many colleges and this must be protected at this crucial juncture. 

2. Priority groups must be identified at a local level. Colleges need to have the flexibility to choose these for themselves. These groups should be selected by what is necessary, not what is desirable. 

3.  Face-to-face interventions in June should only be focused on ensuring that progression can be secured for all students, so they are not disadvantaged, or risk wasting a year. 

Colleges have a very busy few weeks ahead, with a range of complexity to navigate, including risk assessments, training for staff, meaningful consultation with staff and unions, re-engagement of facilities, including new cleaning protocols, communications to students, re-supply of PPE, identification and planning priority groups (based on baskets of quals yet to be revealed by Ofqual), taking legal advice and finally, corporation approvals. Each of these items is in itself a detailed work stream. 

The educational, social and even psychological case for re-opening can be easily made with obvious benefits. However, we have to deal with the situation as it is, not how we would wish it to be, and policy makers need to be mindful of this. Re-opening campus is a high-risk, high-stress, physical and emotional challenge that should be treated respectfully. 

We now need to learn to work out how to open the fizzy can, but with flexibility, caution and only when necessary. 

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