The New Remote Learning Continuity Direction, August 2021: What do schools need to know?

By Tom Middlehurst, ASCL Curriculum and Inspection Specialist

On Thursday 26 August, without any fanfare or formal announcement, Gavin Williamson renewed the Remote Learning Continuity Direction that came into force in October last year and expired at the end of the school year. The Direction places a legal obligation on schools to offer ‘immediate’ remote learning for any student who cannot attend school because of Covid from the start of term until the end of the school year.

What’s the legal position?
The Direction is a legal document, meaning that all state-funded schools in England must adhere to it. This means providing ‘immediate’ remote learning for any student told not to attend school in line with government regulations. The definition of ‘immediate’ is interpreted by the Government as the first full day a student is required to stay at home.

Schools also have a legal duty under the Direction to have ‘regard’ for the statutory obligations and expectations of remote learning. These should be read in full here, but include:
  • an average of three hours learning per day for KS1 pupils; four hours learning per day for KS2 pupils; five hours learning day for KS3 and KS4 pupils
  • a fully sequenced curriculum
  • daily checks on engagement
  • a named member of staff responsible for remote learning provision
  • a published policy on remote learning on your website
  • avoiding long-term projects or internet-based research tasks

Which students are included in the Direction?
All state-funded pupils from EYFS to Year 11 in England are covered by the Direction. This includes state-funded pupils at independent schools, and pupils who live in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland but who attend English schools.

Post-16 students are not covered by the legal Direction, but colleges and sixth forms may wish to offer remote learning to isolating students at their discretion (Further information for post-16 education is available here).

The Direction is worded such that only pupils told not to attend school by Public Health England, the Government, their school, or other appropriate body are entitled to immediate remote learning. This is likely to mean a significantly smaller number of eligible pupils this academic year, compared to last.

As close-contacts of Covid-positive students are no longer expected to self-isolate, and instead should attend school as normal, in practical terms the Direction only applies to those students who have actually tested positive, or in situations where the contingency framework is applied and local directors of public health implement school attendance restrictions.

This means that the children of parents who decide not to send their children into school after being in close contact with a student who has tested positive are not legally entitled to remote learning. Of course, schools can offer this if they choose, but are under no legal obligation to do so. Likewise, if parents choose not to send their child into school because they’re aware that close contacts of positive cases are attending school, their children are not legally covered by the direction.

What does this mean for attendance recording?
As with last year, students who have tested positive for Covid and therefore have to self-isolate, should be offered remote learning and coded as ‘X’ in the attendance record. Although daily engagement must be monitored, there is no need to record this in the attendance record.

Students who do not attend school in person because they have been in close contact with a positive case, should be coded as unauthorised absence as either ‘N’ (if no reason is given) or ‘O’ (if parents don’t feel it’s safe to send the child in). Unless told by a public health official to stay at home, students who have come into close contact with a positive case are expected to attend school as normal, and any non-attendance is therefore unauthorised. 

What will this mean in practice?
Because of the changes to the measures of control in schools, issued by the DfE in July, only students who actually test positive for Covid-19 will need to self-isolate this academic year, unless local public health directors implement contingency plans and restrict school attendance. Schools are no longer required to track close contacts of positive cases, and close contacts are no longer required to self-isolate unless they themselves test positive.

This means that (hopefully) the number of students self-isolating is significantly lower than in 2020-2021. However, this in itself is likely to present challenges, as schools will need to provide remote education for those individual students, whilst teaching a vast majority of students on-site. This might mean rethinking remote provision in some schools, where the model has been based on a bubble or small group having to self-isolate at once.

What support is being offered by Government?
There is a grant funding, on a needs-basis, for students that need access to data, of up to £75 over three months.

There is no additional funding for devices for disadvantaged learners. The devices that were purchased by DfE are now owned by the school, trust or local authority; and should be distributed as required when a student is told to self-isolate.

What is ASCL’s view on this?
We always believed that a legal direction was an unnecessarily heavy-handed approach, especially when most schools were already providing high quality remote education. We continue to think this is true.

As the Direction rolls into the new academic year, we have three concerns:
  • That the changes to self-isolation rules mean that fewer students will be self-isolating at any one time, which may present greater challenges in delivering remote learning than when larger groups were told to self-isolate.
  • That parents who do not feel it is safe to send their child into school after a positive case is identified expect remote learning provision, creating a conflict between parents and the school.
  • That barriers to effective remote education will continue to impact the quality of students’ educational experience differentially, especially vulnerable and disadvantaged learners.
If you have any immediate concerns about remote learning expectations, or the Direction itself, please contact the ASCL Hotline if you are an ASCL member.

Tom Middlehurst is ASCL Curriculum and Inspection Specialist
Posted: 31/08/2021 09:50:55