Back to school #3

The start of a new term, one like no other.

Pupils return to school across England and Wales as Jeremy Hunt backs call for ‘rapid testing’ in classroomsLondon Evening Standard
[T]he former health secretary Jeremy Hunt backed a call from epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson for “rapid testing” to be introduced in schools, using a similar model to that used in Germany … “I think he is right, and the reason he is right is because we know something now we didn’t know back in January, which is that about 70 per cent of the people who transmit coronavirus don’t have any symptoms at all and so that makes it much harder to get public consent for things like sending people back to school or going back to offices and so on because it is a silent transmitter and even a silent killer sometimes. The way you get round that is by having very quick, very effective large-scale testing.”

Germany faces a ‘roller coaster’ as schools reopen amid coronavirusThe New York Times
Germany, like other countries that have managed the pandemic fairly well, was quick to deploy widespread testing, effective contact tracing and tests with rapid results. Crucially, that has helped keep the rate of community transmission low. So far, the lesson from Germany, Denmark and Norway, among the first countries to start the new school year, is that schools can reopen and remain open — if they build on that kind of foundation. But most countries, and most parts of the United States, simply can’t match those conditions.

This isn’t just a problem for schools, of course.

Fears over COVID-19 spread in universities as students set to make ‘UK’s biggest annual migration’Sky News
The start of a new university year is “the biggest migration of people on an annual basis in the UK,” Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, says. “That’s a million students, moving across country, cycling in and out of lockdown zones, of bubbles, of homes, into new cities, where we are not track and tracking those students, we are not testing those students,” she said. “We are seriously concerned that if the government and universities do not step in and discourage this… we could see universities becoming the care homes of the second wave of COVID-19.”

Fewer shots, more sanitiser: Manchester prepares for freshers week in the time of CovidThe Guardian
In university cities and towns across the country, students are set to encounter a transformed reality next month. The bustling student district of Fallowfield, which once had its raucous house parties debated in parliament, is one of many places that will have to trim its sails.

The area is home to Manchester University’s main accommodation block, and businesses are quietly gearing up for what is usually one of their busiest months, without quite knowing what the return of students will bring. Promoters would usually be dotted on street corners, attempting to lure twentysomethings with £1 shots. But now, when students arrive, they will be greeted by floor markings, hand sanitiser, and signs reminding them to keep socially distanced.

But maybe everything will be OK?

Why heading back to school isn’t as big a risk as it soundsWired UK
“What’s happened between June and now, is that we now know that young children, so those under ten, have negligible risk from the virus and don’t appear to be transmitting it much either,” says David Strain, clinical senior lecturer and honorary consultant at University of Exeter Medical School. “In June, we knew that the children could catch the virus, and they had no disease. But we didn’t know, at that point, whether they could then take that virus home and spread it on to their parents and grandparents.” One worry is that children will spread the virus to vulnerable members of their household – an elderly relative or shielder. But, luckily, children aren’t as contagious as adults. […]

What is clear is that children staying out of school is hugely damaging – not just in regards to the loss of education, but whether the children come from vulnerable settings, are neglected at home, or at risk of domestic violence. Schools provide a refuge for these children. “We’ve seen an entire generation lose six months worth of education – for some this is their formative years,” says Strain. “This is further driving health and educational inequalities.”

Time for a ‘Nightingale moment’ for England’s children, says watchdogThe Guardian
Invoking the gargantuan effort taken to build Nightingale hospitals for thousands of Covid patients in a matter of weeks, and the £35bn furlough scheme to save jobs, Anne Longfield said children’s recovery from missing months of school would take up to a year and would have a profound psychological impact. […]

“The government needs to be bold, and on the sort of scale that saw hospitals built in weeks, and workers paid in furlough, to make sure no child is left behind. If not, they risk losing a generation for good. The stakes are simply that high,” she said.

Any lessons from history?

Schools beat earlier plagues with outdoor classes. We should, tooThe New York Times
The subsequent New England winter was especially unforgiving, but children stayed warm in wearable blankets known as “Eskimo sitting bags” and with heated soapstones placed at their feet. The experiment was a success by nearly every measure — none of the children got sick. Within two years there were 65 open-air schools around the country either set up along the lines of the Providence model or simply held outside. In New York, the private school Horace Mann conducted classes on the roof; another school in the city took shape on an abandoned ferry.

Distressingly, little of this sort of ingenuity has greeted the effort to reopen schools amid the current public-health crisis.

A classroom on a ferry in New York City, circa 1915.

If schools do have to close again, we’ll be better prepared next time, right?

Coronavirus: how can teachers prepare better for remote learning?Tes
The principle of generative learning is that there are activities that we can ask pupils to do in which they create new learning for themselves. All these activities involve pupils taking new information from a source – such as teacher explanation, a written text, video clip etc – and then going through the process of: selecting relevant information; organising it; integrating it into their prior knowledge.

There’s a mountain to climb, even without any further closures.

Pupils three months behind as new term starts, study claimsSchools Week
The research has prompted warnings that catch-up must not be seen as a “quick-turnaround solution”, with schools facing a “range of barriers” as they reopen. The survey also found that almost half of pupils need “intensive catch-up support”, with those from the most deprived schools and institutions with the highest proportion of pupils from BAME backgrounds “in greatest need”.

Next year’s exam season will be rolling around before you know it.

GCSEs and A-levels: Decision on exam delay promised ‘very soon’BBC News
This is expected to be part of a wider strategy on how next summer’s exams will operate when so much school has been missed because of the pandemic.

3 ways to avoid repeating the exam grade fiascoTes
Teachers are calling for reduced exam content and a new national system for moderating grades to avoid a repeat of this year’s exam grade controversy.

Perhaps some people need to go back to school more than others.

Ofqual chief Sally Collier steps down after exams chaosBBC News
“This move follows the failure of the statistical model that led to this year’s grading fiasco, but the fault is not hers alone,” said the head of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton. “Ministers have questions to answer over the extent to which they scrutinised and challenged the methodology and reliability of the statistical model, particularly given the enormity of the task and the importance of getting it right.”

Everything that went wrong with the botched A-Levels algorithmWired UK
“This whole story has really highlighted the problems that there are around automated decision making, in particular when it’s deployed by the public sector,” says Tennison. “This has hit the headlines, because it affects so many people across the country, and it affects people who have a voice. There’s other automated decision making that goes on all the time, around benefits, for example, that affect lots of people who don’t have this strong voice.”

Can algorithms ever make the grade?Ada Lovelace Institute
Hindsight delivers 20:20 vision, as we know. But Ofqual should have been aware that it was deploying an algorithm against a backdrop of existing public scepticism towards algorithmic systems, and an environment of tenuous trust in Government data use. It needed not only to meet, but to exceed existing standards for transparency and accountability, to avoid doing indelible harm to public confidence in data-driven decision making. […]

It would be easy to blame Ofqual here, but the choice of goals – in algorithms as in policy more broadly – is a political question, not just a technical one. Professor Jo-Anne Baird, a member of Ofqual’s Standing Advisory Group, has publicly stated that Ofqual was specifically directed to deliver exam results that controlled grade inflation, and within those parameters, this algorithm is the best you can get. So why did the public have to wait until results day in August to find out that this was the goal?

The lessons we all must learn from the A-levels algorithm debacleWired UK
The statistical problems within the algorithm – such as the ability to only award a certain number of each grade per school – could have been spotted before it was deployed. But external expert advice was ignored months before results day. Members of the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) offered to help Ofqual in April, but faced five-year non-disclosure agreements if they wanted to be involved in the project. The RSS experts said they believed some of the issues with the algorithm could have been avoided if independent expert advice was taken.

How might Ofqual have avoided this turmoil?HEPI
Ofqual were set a nearly impossible task: Provide students with the grades that they would most likely have achieved had they sat their exams, while maintaining overall national standards for prior years, and protecting groups from being systematically advantaged or disadvantaged. The methodology arguably failed on all three aims. The situation we’re left with is in many ways worse. But could this all have been avoided had the methodology been better designed and communicated?

Author: Terry Madeley

Works with student data and enjoys reading about art and design, data, education and technology.

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