December 2020 Christmas holidays, vaccine roll-out across the UK, returning to school in January.

Wednesday December 16th, 2020

Welcome to the final edition of 2020. What a strange year it’s been! I hope that you and yours are able to enjoy the holiday season wherever you are in the world and that you stay safe and well.

In this issue, we’ve collated some ideas to help pupils make the most of their down time. Whether it’s simple rest and relaxation, learning a new hobby that could teach valuable life skills, or taking the opportunity to revise effectively – we’ve got it covered.

We’ll also do a whistle-stop tour of the latest developments regarding Covid, including the roll-out of the vaccine across the UK, the new test to release scheme, and schools’ scenario planning for the new term in January.

We’ll also reflect on this strangest of years and take another look at how it’s shaped the future of education.

Vaccine roll-out across the UK

Earlier this month, people in the UK began to receive the Pfizer vaccine. This vaccine requires two separate doses three weeks apart for maximum immunity (up to 95% for at least six months). The government is prioritising older people, especially residents in care homes and frontline health and social care workers. The first people to be vaccinated had their jabs in hospital; now the vaccine is arriving at GP surgeries across the UK. Almost 7,000 GP practices across England will combine into around 1,000 ‘networks’, each with one dedicated surgery acting as a vaccination centre for that network’s region. After a year of uncertainty, these are positive developments indeed.

Test to release scheme

As of 15 December, people arriving into the UK from countries outside the ‘travel corridor’ can reduce their quarantine period by paying for a Covid-19 test. Having isolated for five days after their arrival in the UK, international travellers can take a test with a private provider (i.e. not government funded, but government approved) and as long as their result is negative, they’re able to end their self-isolation at that point.

Under this new ‘Test to release for international travel’ strategy, passengers must book their test before they travel and still need to complete a passenger locator form. The reason for the five-day self-isolation prior to taking the test (instead of simply taking it at the port of arrival) is that it reduces the risk of false negatives.

Read more here .

Christmas holidays

Despite rising cases in certain areas (London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire entered Tier 3 on 16th December), the UK government has relaxed rules over a five-day period around Christmas to allow up to three households to socialise in the same house. The relaxation is contentious because of the very strong likelihood that the additional contact and mixing of households will push the R rate up again. But the government has tried to take a balanced approach that takes account of people’s mental, as well as physical, health and wellbeing.

Many families are opting not to see vulnerable relatives in person, despite the restrictions being lifted across the UK, because they feel the risks are too high. For others – across the UK and beyond – this holiday might be the first chance they’ve had to see family members in person for almost a year.

That being the case, it’s more important than ever to take the time to relax and enjoy just being with your loved ones this Christmas. Eat well, sleep well, and spend time together outdoors. Not only is there less risk of the virus spreading outside – but you’ll also reap the rewards of being out in the fresh air.

The benefits of being (active) outside

According to research carried out at Stanford University, a 90-minute walk amongst ‘nature’ can reduce depression and anxiety whilst increasing our positive emotions. Cognitive psychologists at the University of Utah add a reduction in stress levels to this list of benefits too.

Studies in Finland have shown that for children of all ages, moderate to vigorous activity correlates to improved reading skills (in terms of both fluency and comprehension) and better maths abilities. Their more sedentary counterparts performed less well in maths and reading.

And researchers worldwide have discovered that insufficient exposure to sunlight is a contributing factor in children’s short-sightedness (myopia). Caused by an elongation of the eyeball, just two to three hours’ exposure a day – even to weak winter sunlight – has been shown to help prevent myopia developing.

To revise… or not to revise?

Having said all of the above (get outside regularly into nature and sunlight and fresh air, spend quality time with family, etc.) – there is still the pressing matter of keeping up to speed, or maybe even getting ahead, with preparation for next year’s exams! Years 11 and 13 will have mock exams early in the New Year, and students of all ages will likely be facing some sort of assessment or exam come the summer. The Christmas break is also the perfect time to catch up on some reading or revision, or to get ahead with assignments and coursework. Have a look back at our April 2019 blog for details of how to revise effectively using the pomodoro technique (essentially, a time management tool that enables you to stay fresh and focused on your objective), and other ways in which you can ensure revision is efficient and effective and maybe even fun!

Combine the two…

If the wintry weather can’t tempt you outside, revision seems overwhelming and you don’t want to miss this special chance to spend time with family – why not try something new?

The recent rise in interest in chess in the UK was fired by the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit. I read an article in the Telegraph suggesting chess can boost brain function and teach resilience. Malcolm Pein, the Telegraph’s chess columnist, a child chess prodigy himself and the founder of the Chess in Schools and Communities charity, believes that the game encourages concentration and promotes resilience because it teaches that failure is simply “something that happens – it’s not who you are. You can always come back and win the second game”, he says.

Essentially about pattern recognition, chess demands excellent maths and memory skills. And chess skills correlate to high reading ability, according to study after study into the subject. Pein praises chess as one of very few hobbies that can equip children for a career as well as life in general. According to him, the most direct career application is computer programming, although the skills are transferrable to many careers in the ‘new economy’ as he calls it. And the most exceptional coder is Demis Hassabis: a child chess genius raised in London, who moved into computer science and neuroscience, co-founding artificial intelligence company DeepMind in 2010 and selling it – for £400m – to Google just four years later.

Parents and children turned to chess in their thousands during the first lockdown. Here was something educational and productive that children could do by themselves, or with parents or siblings. reported a huge increase in members by the end of April – and that trend has continued as further lockdowns and winter advanced. offers a great, safe online platform too, and Pein says chess books are cheap and instructive ways to learn. He recommends Grandmaster Murray Chandler’s Chess for Children for youngsters new to the game, with the follow-up How to beat your dad at chess for slightly older, more advanced players. He also rates Fritz & Chesster, an award-winning interactive package now available as a phone app.

Chess sounds like a win-win (even for the person who loses!)

Reflecting back and looking ahead

Independent Education Today asked Headteachers to reflect on what they termed ‘the ultimate disrupter’ in their end-of-year review for the sector.

The Heads talk about an aspect that I think we’ve seen from many schools and other organisations across multiple sectors – innovation. Discussing sport, but applying the sentiment across the whole curriculum and beyond, Shaun Fenton, Headmaster at Reigate Grammar School in Surrey summarises it as follows: “We didn’t just pretend we were awaiting fixtures to restart, we did something different and better.” In Reigate’s case that meant that whilst sporting fixtures with other schools were out of bounds, they took sport online and “ran a series of high-profile coaching masterclasses run by international sportsmen and women.” And that seems to have been the pattern across the sector, already renowned for its innovative, responsive approach – albeit based on hundreds of years of history and heritage. For example, Reigate Grammar had been planning their first drama production. Unable to perform it, but undeterred, they “turned it into a feature film, hired a cinema and had a full red-carpet premiere!”

Integrating technology smoothly and seamlessly into learning has obviously played a huge part in this year’s teaching for all independent schools. Mr Fenton stresses how it was important for Reigate to remain “relationship-focused rather than tech-reliant” but he praises the transition to a hybrid approach to learning as something that “kept friends talking, kept learning moving forward and helped students continue to feel part of the Reigatian community.”

Rosie McColl, Head at Brighton Girls (formerly Brighton and Hove High School), echoes this sentiment. She highlights how the pandemic gave people more of an insight into people’s lives and challenges, and how the combination of lockdown and technology has actually given humanity as a whole, and education specifically, the opportunity to be more personalised and aware of individuals’ needs and preferences. She says:

“Like many people, my days were dominated by online meetings. But this did mean that my laptop became a window into other worlds. People’s personal battles became more visible. A meeting with a colleague being interrupted by a small child; a student struggling at home; an introvert enjoying the relative paradise of remote learning and reflecting on their normal school experience – all these battles were suddenly brought into sharp relief.”

Her counterpart at South Hampstead High School, Vicky Bingham, agrees. She believes the pandemic has not only brought Heads together, as they turned to each other for advice and support through unprecedented times, but it’s also brought down barriers between partner schools as online teaching crossed geographical borders and sector divides. “At South Hampstead we have taught students online as near as Wembley and as far afield as Kolkata,” she says, referring to the school’s work not just with their own students, but also with partner schools in the state sector.

And as we’ve mentioned in previous blogs (such as November 2020’s) independent schools have embraced technology to the point where whole new schooling concepts have been generated. For example, the hybrid school recently launched by Portland Place School in central London, alongside its more traditional offering. Students enrolled in its new hybrid school study from home for four days a week and come into school for art, music, PE, science practicals and to socialise with friends once a week on a Wednesday. The school also offer pastoral care on-site, plus a range of extra-curricular activities online such as a debating society and music lessons. Not only does this approach mean the fees can be halved, but in some cases it’s been found to suit children’s needs better – especially for families concerned about virus transmission.

Next term – returning to school in January

But for the vast majority of schools, mitigating the risk of infection as pupils return home for what might be their first visit this academic year – then getting them safely back into the classroom in January – is the goal.

Independent schools are scenario planning for the holidays and beyond. Many have already written to parents, outlining the guidelines for reducing the risk of the virus spreading. Many schools are staying open until close to Christmas, to enable concerned parents to alert them to positive tests or symptoms developed within 48 hours of a child leaving school. Department of Education guidelines state that if a student tests positive for coronavirus (Covid-19) during the first six days after teaching ends, having developed symptoms within 48 hours of being in school, the school should be informed. They will then assist in identifying close contacts and advising self-isolation, as the pupil may have been infectious whilst in school.

On returning to the UK in January, students are likely to fall into one of four categories:

Many schools will run blanket testing in early January for all pupils returning to school; other schools will encourage families to take advantage of the UK’s new ‘test to release’ scheme described above. A private test, costing in the region of £100, and taken on the fifth day after arrival in the UK, can give them the all-clear to leave quarantine earlier than before, with most test results available within 24 hours. Many schools will offer accommodation for the five days while pupils need to self-isolate after arriving in the UK. Dates and arrangements will differ, so check with your child’s school what their plans are if they haven’t already shared this with you. What the test to release scheme does mean is that some schools may now not offer the full quarantine period should you choose to opt out of the scheme. So do be aware that you might need to make alternative arrangements for quarantine if you don’t plan to pay for the test and your child’s school is not arranging blanket testing.

Alternatively, if you’d prefer your child to quarantine off-site (with a guardian or host family) for the five days prior to taking the test, then it’s likely you’ll need to arrange that directly, as schools will probably only test on-site. Again, you can check all this with your school. And should the test be positive, then no doubt your child’s school will have arrangements in place for your child to be cared for in self-isolation if they are already on site, but they couldn’t welcome them back from quarantine until 10 days have elapsed since the positive test (this is a change from the previous 14-day rule) if it was taken off-site whilst self-isolating with a host family or guardian.

If you have any queries or concerns about any of this, please do discuss it with your child’s school. They’ll be only too happy to help and reassure you. Or get in touch with Regency Education and we can support or advise you with your own scenario planning for next term too.

With all good wishes for the festive season. I hope you stay safe and well and can enjoy some down time catching up with loved ones.

Until next year!