Looking back at 2020/21, while it’s undoubtedly been incredibly challenging for students, parents, staff and agents, we can say we’re in a much better position now than we were at the beginning.
The year began amid significant disruption, with our schools trying to work out how to open safely amid the ongoing pandemic. They needed to balance getting as many pupils back as they could, with ensuring provisions were in place for students unable to return to learn remotely.
There were also strict guidelines on hygiene and cleaning routines, the need to comply with daily-updated government guidance, and the potential for changes in other countries to affect the movement of the thousands of international students we welcome every year.
“The boarding environment has arguably been one of the safest in the context of a pandemic.”
One of the key advantages our boarding schools have had during the pandemic is their ability to safely manage quarantine for any returning students. Being their own self-contained communities, any cases could be kept to a minimum, and if isolation was necessary, it could be done with minimum disruption.
As a result, the boarding environment has arguably been one of the safest in the context of a pandemic. There have been relatively few cases in boarding schools, few instances of whole year groups being affected, and no schools have had to shut completely.
We’ve adapted to living in a hybrid world where we weren’t fully operational. As the year progressed, things did get much closer to normal, but we still had to manage Covid-related issues. For example, some schools had to postpone end-of-year events, due to pupils or staff being advised to self-isolate. By now however, responding to the constantly evolving situation had become part of the normal school life.
There is every reason then for us to be looking forward to the new academic year with a degree of confidence. Yes, there will still be challenges — international travel may continue to be difficult in the short term, with different countries being on different travel lists, and also being at different stages of tackling Covid. But those challenges aren’t as complex as they were 12 months ago, and they’re certainly not insurmountable.
“The UK’s vaccination programme and the way it has managed its reopenings so far has boosted confidence.”
One thing we’d expect is a return in boarding numbers — all the indications from our schools are that enquiries are very strong. Demand is there and parents are keen for their children to return. The UK’s vaccination programme and the way it has managed its reopenings so far has boosted confidence.
The most recent data we have on boarding numbers and the information gathered from the latest ISC census, was taken when many students were still studying remotely, so it will be at least the autumn before we have a more accurate picture. But the signs so far are very promising.
The big game changer for staff has been vaccination — this time last year, there wasn’t a vaccine, but now much fewer staff should be affected by Covid. There could potentially be difficulties if staff are “pinged” by the NHS Covid app and advised to self-isolate, and the government needs to provide clarity for our schools on this. We don’t want to be in a situation where a perfectly healthy school could be unable to operate because staff have been pinged.
“UK boarding schools had a fantastic reputation before Covid, and that has not changed.”
The strict cleaning and hygiene protocols will continue, and it’s quite possible some degree of social distancing and handwashing or sanitising will be in place permanently. And finally, we’d anticipate that the exam process will begin to return to normal, where students will sit exams which will go back to being assessed in the traditional way.
UK boarding schools had a fantastic reputation before Covid, and that has not changed. The support they provided to students during the pandemic perfectly illustrates the point — great schools have continued to be great, just in a different way for the past year. And although we haven’t known a “normal” in boarding since January 2020, our schools will continue to be great once “normal” does finally return.