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Back to school - a guide for parents in England

Parents, children, teachers and school leaders may face their most difficult term ever when schools reopen to all pupils in England for the start of the new academic year.

It is the government’s plan that all pupils, in all year groups, will return to school full-time from the beginning of the autumn term. However, this does not mean that the going back to school will look anything like normal. This means that for many families, back to school planning will look different this year than it has in previous years. There is not a ‘one size’ fits all approach for every school – it will look different depending on needs and setting.

This guide will help you to get to grips with the government guidance for England. It includes a summary of what you need to know, what you can expect and we’ve included a checklist with questions you may want to ask your school to help you to plan and prepare for the upcoming school year.

Your school may have already provided clear guidance for you as a parent and your children for how the start of term will look, based on the government guidelines. But if you haven’t heard from your school yet or need further information, this guide as a good starting point to find out what measures are in place and how your school has made them work.

It will take a team effort to make this work; parents, children, teachers and school leaders working and pulling together.

The government guidance is split into five parts:

Minimise the risk of coronavirus transmission

Essential measures include: What to expect

A requirement that people who are ill stay at home

Parents must ensure that children do not come into school if they have coronavirus symptoms or have tested positive in the last ten days. Anyone developing those symptoms during the school day will be sent home immediately.

Robust hand and respiratory hygiene


Schools must ensure that pupils clean their hands regularly, including when they arrive at school, when they return from breaks, when they change rooms and before and after eating.

The ‘Catch it, bin it, kill it’ approach continues to be very important, so schools must ensure that they have enough tissues and bins available to follow this routine.

Enhanced cleaning arrangements


A cleaning schedule that ensures enhanced cleaning and includes:

  • more frequent cleaning of rooms and shared areas that are used by different groups
  • frequently touched surfaces being cleaned more often than normal
  • toilets will need to be cleaned regularly and pupils must be encouraged to clean their hands thoroughly after using the toilet - different groups being allocated their own toilet blocks could be considered but this is not a requirement if the site does not allow for it.

Active engagement with NHS Test and Trace

Schools must ensure they understand the NHS Test and Trace process and how to contact their local Public Health England health protection team.

Minimise contact between individuals and maintain social distancing wherever possible

Maintaining distinct groups or ‘bubbles’ that do not mix makes it quicker and easier in the event of a positive case to identify those who may need to self-isolate, and keep that number as small as possible. There is no set number for the size of a bubble, although schools are encouraged not to exceed the size of a year group. Some schools will be able to create smaller, class-sized bubbles and this is encouraged where possible.

Teachers should try stay at the front of the class, and away from their colleagues where possible. Ideally, adults should maintain 2m distance from each other, and from children. However, the guidance recognises that this may not be possible with younger pupils and in primary schools.

Schools should make small adaptations to the classroom to support distancing where possible. That should include seating pupils side by side and facing forwards if possible, although this may not be appropriate for the youngest children.

Schools should avoid large gatherings, such as assemblies or collective worship, with more than one group.

Movement around the school site will be kept to a minimum. While passing briefly in the corridor or playground is low risk, schools should avoid creating busy corridors, entrances and exits.

Schools should also consider staggered break times and lunchtimes (and allow time for cleaning surfaces in the dining hall between groups).

For individual and very frequently used equipment, such as pencils and pens, it is recommended that staff and pupils have their own items that are not shared.

Classroom-based resources, such as books and games, can be used and shared within the bubble; these should be cleaned regularly, along with all frequently touched surfaces.

It is still recommended that pupils limit the amount of equipment they bring into school each day to essentials such as lunch boxes, hats, coats, books, stationery and mobile phones.


School Operations

Dedicated school transport, including statutory provision The guidance says:


By dedicated school transport, we mean services that are used only to carry pupils to school. This includes statutory home to school transport, but may also include some existing or new commercial travel routes, where they carry school pupils only.

It may be necessary for schools to work with local authorities so that they can identify where it might be necessary to provide additional dedicated school transport services.

Pupils on dedicated school services should be grouped together on transport, and, where possible, this should reflect the "bubble groups" that are adopted within school.

There should be use of hand sanitiser upon boarding and/or disembarking from buses, as well as additional cleaning of vehicles and organised queuing and boarding where possible. There should be distancing within vehicles wherever possible.

The use of face coverings for children (except those under the age of 11), where appropriate is required, for example, if they are likely to come into very close contact with people outside of their group or who they do not normally meet.

Wider public transport The guidance says:


By public transport services, we mean routes which are also used by the general public.

Use of public transport by pupils, particularly in peak times, should be kept to an absolute minimum.

Schools should work with partners to consider staggered start times to enable more journeys to take place outside of peak hours.

Schools should encourage parents, staff and pupils to walk or cycle to school if at all possible.

Schools may want to consider using "walking buses" (a supervised group of children being walked to, or from, school) or working with their local authority to promote safe cycling routes.

Schools should also have a process for removing face coverings when pupils and staff who use them arrive at school, and communicate it clearly to them.

Attendance and Fines The guidance says:


“In March, when the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak was increasing, we made clear no parent would be penalised or sanctioned for their child’s non-attendance at school.

Now the circumstances have changed” and parents may be issued sanctions from September, including fines.

The usual rules on school attendance will apply, including:

  • parents’ duty to secure that their child attends regularly at school where the child is a registered pupil at school and they are of compulsory school age;
  • schools’ responsibilities to record attendance and follow up absence
  • the availability to issue sanctions, including fixed penalty notices in line with local authorities’ codes of conduct

Schools should identify pupils who are reluctant or anxious about returning or who are at risk of disengagement, and develop plans for re-engaging them. This should include disadvantaged and vulnerable children and young people, especially those who were persistently absent prior to the pandemic or who have not engaged with school regularly during the pandemic.

Catering The guidance says:


“We expect that kitchens will be fully open from the start of the autumn term and normal legal requirements will apply about provision of food to all pupils who want it, including for those eligible for benefits-related free school meals or universal infant free school meals."

School Trips The guidance says:


“We continue to advice against domestic (UK) overnight and overseas educational visits at this stage.’

“In the autumn term, schools can resume non-overnight domestic educational visits…Schools should also make use of outdoor spaces in the local area to support delivery of the curriculum.”


School Uniform The guidance says:


Some schools may have relaxed their uniform policy while only certain categories of pupils were attending.

However, it is encouraged that all schools return to their usual uniform policies in the autumn term.

Uniforms do not need to be cleaned any more often than usual, nor do they need to be cleaned using methods which are different from normal.

Schools should consider how pupil non-compliance is managed, taking a mindful and considerate approach in relation to parents who may be experiencing financial pressures.

Extra-curricular provision The guidance says:


Schools should consider resuming any breakfast and after-school provision, where possible, from the start of the autumn term.

Curriculum, behaviour and pastoral support

Curriculum expectations The guidance says:


Schools should teach an ambitious and broad curriculum in all subjects from the start of the autumn term, but "make use of existing flexibilities to create time to cover the most important missed content".

Schools should plan on the basis of the educational needs of pupils, stating that: “Curriculum planning should be informed by an assessment of pupils’ starting points and addressing the gaps in their knowledge and skills, in particular making effective use of regular formative assessment (for example, quizzes, observing pupils in class, talking to pupils to assess understanding, scrutiny of pupils’ work) while avoiding the introduction of unnecessary tracking systems.”

Please note:

Schools should ensure that Relationships and health education (RHE) for primary-aged pupils and relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) for secondary-aged students, which becomes compulsory from September 2020, is taught by at least the start of the summer term 2021.

Physical activity in schools


Schools have the flexibility to decide how physical education, sport and physical activity will be provided whilst following the measures in their system of controls.

Pupils should be kept in consistent groups, sports equipment thoroughly cleaned between each use by different individual groups, and contact sports avoided.

Outdoor sports should be prioritised where possible.

Pupil wellbeing and support

Schools need to consider the provision of pastoral and extracurricular activities for all pupils designed to:

  • Support the rebuilding of friendships and social engagement.
  • Address and equip pupils to respond to issues linked to the coronavirus.
  • Support pupils with approaches to improving their physical and mental wellbeing.
  • Support resilience, mental health and wellbeing, including over anxiety, bereavement and sleep issues.

Assessment and accountability

Inspection The guidance says:


For state-funded schools, routine Ofsted inspections will remain suspended for the autumn term.

However, during the autumn term, inspectors will visit a sample of schools to discuss how they are managing the return to education of all their pupils.

These will be collaborative discussions, taking into account the curriculum and remote education expectations set out in this document, and will not result in a judgement.

Primary assessment The guidance says:


The early year’s foundation stage profile, and all existing statutory key stage 1 and 2 assessments, should return in 2020-2021 in accordance with their usual timetables. This includes:

  • The phonics screening check.
  • Key stage 1 tests and teacher assessment.
  • The Year 4 multiplication tables check.
  • KS2 tests and teacher assessment.

The introduction of the Reception baseline assessment has been postponed until September 2021.

Exams The guidance says:


GCSEs and A levels will take place in summer 2021 but with adaptations, including those that will free up teaching time.

There will also be an exam series taking place in autumn 2020, following the cancellation of summer 2020 exams.

Accountability expectations The guidance says:


Performance tables are suspended for the 2019-20 academic year, and no school or college will be judged on data based on exams and assessments from 2020.

Contingency planning for outbreaks

Process in the event of local outbreaks The guidance says:


If a local area sees a spike in infection rates that is resulting in localised community spread, appropriate authorities will decide which measures to implement to help contain the spread. The Department for Education will be involved in decisions at a local and national level affecting a geographical area, and will support appropriate authorities and individual settings to follow the health advice.

Further, more detailed guidance is expected to be issued on this matter.

Contingency plans for outbreaks The guidance says:


Where a class, group or small number of pupils need to self-isolate, or there is a local lockdown requiring pupils to remain at home, we expect schools to have the capacity to offer immediate remote education.

Schools are expected to consider how to continue to improve the quality of their existing offer and have a strong contingency plan in place for remote education provision by the end of September.

In developing these contingency plans, we expect schools to:

  • Use a curriculum sequence that allows access to high-quality online and offline resources and teaching videos, and that is linked to the school’s curriculum expectations.
  • Give access to high quality remote education resources.
  • Select the online tools that will be consistently used across the school in order to allow interaction, assessment and feedback, and make sure staff are trained in their use.
  • Provide printed resources, such as textbooks and workbooks, for pupils who do not have suitable online access.
  • Recognise that younger pupils and some pupils with SEND may not be able to access remote education without adult support, and so schools should work with families to deliver a broad and ambitious curriculum.

When teaching pupils remotely, we expect schools to:

  • Set assignments so that pupils have meaningful and ambitious work each day in a number of different subjects.
  • Teach a planned and well-sequenced curriculum so that knowledge and skills are built incrementally, with a good level of clarity about what is intended to be taught and practised in each subject.
  • Provide frequent, clear explanations of new content, delivered by a teacher in the school or through high quality curriculum resources and/or videos.
  • Gauge how well pupils are progressing through the curriculum, using questions and other suitable tasks and set a clear expectation on how regularly teachers will check work.
  • Enable teachers to adjust the pace or difficulty of what is being taught in response to questions or assessments, including, where necessary, revising material or simplifying explanations to ensure pupils’ understanding.
  • Plan a programme that is of equivalent length to the core teaching pupils would receive in school, ideally including daily contact with teachers.


Find our parent planning checklist here.

Reviewed: August 2020

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