The Government's latest move in managing Covid in schools and colleges underlines what has become increasingly clear, that decisions are being based, not on the safety of staff and pupils, but on politics.
Author: Dr Patrick Roach
Dr Patrick Roach became General Secretary of the NASUWT in 2020, following ten years as Deputy General Secretary and having worked for the Union since 1998.
Despite credible evidence of rising rates of Covid-19 among pupils and education staff, the Government has pushed forward with new contingency arrangements for the management of covid outbreaks in schools and colleges which not only threaten to undermine safety, but which puts politics above the welfare of children and teachers.
The new guidance replaces the previous triered arrangements established at the start of the Autumn term which set out the circumstances in which schools could move to the use of rotas or close completely where virus transmission levels threatened their safe operation. The tiers had become the subject of increasing concern as the Government chose not to implement them even in areas with extremely high rates of Coronavirus or where substantial numbers of covid cases had been confirmed in a school.
Under the new contingency measures, critical decisions about the steps to be taken in schools and colleges in the event of a covid outbreak will now be taken out of the hands of local public health experts and those working in schools and will instead be placed with Government officials and Ministers working from Whitehall.
This decision underlines what has become increasingly clear during the course of this pandemic, that decisions about the operation of schools are being based, not on the safety and welfare of children, young people and staff, but on politics.
How will an already under-capacity DfE discharge critical life or death decisions across 23,000 schools nationwide? And, what does the new Framework mean for employers, who have legal duties to ensure health and safety at work?
The NASUWT wants to see decisions on responding to an outbreak of covid in a school or local area made by and with the full involvement of school leaders, employers and local public health officials who know the local picture on Covid in their communities and critically, who will have a better grasp of each school or college.
Instead, the Government has chosen to undermine school and college leaders and health experts and pursue a path where it is clear that schools and colleges will stay open come what may.
Schools and colleges should stay open only where it is safe for them to do so. Keeping schools open should not and must not be at the expense of the health, safety and welfare of pupils and staff.
This latest announcement, which appears once again to have bypassed Parliament, represents one of the biggest reversals of local autonomy since Margaret Thatcher introduced the system of Local Management of Schools (LMS) in 1988. Contrary to public confidence and trust in teachers and headteachers, the Government’s message appears to be that “we know best” when it comes to the safe provision of quality education for children and young people.
Despite repeated requests to the Secretary of State for Education, Ministers have failed to provide the NASUWT with weekly data on the number of pupils and staff testing positive for Covid and the number of pupils and staff having to self-isolate. The ONS has reported a 50-fold increase in the number of positive cases among 11-16 year-olds since September and there is increasing evidence of virus transmission between pupils and between pupils and adults in schools, including in primary schools.
Our latest member survey of over 7,000 teachers found that two-thirds have had colleagues who have displayed covid symptoms and almost six in ten have had ‘bubbles’ or classes in their school who had been sent home because of suspected or positive Covid-19 cases.
Yet the Government continues to insist that teachers are at no greater risk from Covid than other workers, without providing any definitive scientific evidence to back up this assertion.
The needs of staff and pupils who are clinically extremely vulnerable or who are in other high-risk groups have not been adequately addressed and the announcement of limited funding to meet the additional costs to schools in ensuring Covid-safe conditions continues to be a major cause for concern.
The Government must now be pressed to publish the criteria that it will use to guide its decisions on school closures where there are covid outbreaks and to make public how and when these critical decisions are made.
In the absence of greater transparency many parents, teachers and others working in schools would be justified in taking the view that the Government is paying lip-service to public health and safety at work.