As more children are encouraged to return to school, teachers and parents are in urgent need of reassurances over safety in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that as many as half of eligible parents are not currently sending their children back to school as they believe it is not yet safe to do so.
And many individual schools and local authority and academy employers have been unable to make an informed decision to re-open to more pupils because they are not getting the appropriate guidance and information they need.
In this climate, and given the considerable uncertainty that remains about whether schools can continue to operate safely, it is vitally important that relevant enforcement bodies, such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), have a prominent role in ensuring that schools are safe places to work.
Schools are centres of learning and nurturing and provide a vital foundation for children as they learn and develop through their lives.
But schools are also workplaces and that the main statutory responsibility for regulating the proper management of risk in all workplaces rests with the HSE.
In common with all health and safety risks there needs to be a robust enforcement process to back up statutory regulations.
The HSE needs to take appropriate, investigative and if necessary enforcement action where it is shown that schools and employers are not operating safely for teachers and education staff.
The HSE also has a key role to play in meeting the Prime Minister’s commitment to ensure that schools are “COVID-secure” and “COVID-compliant” for children and for the teachers and other staff who work with them. So, why does it appear that the HSE has been so silent during the current crisis?
Given the significant risk that COVID-19 poses as teachers and others return to the workplace, urgent action is needed from the HSE to address the particular risks that exist within schools and other education settings which are unable to practice stringent social distancing measures.
The NASUWT has asked Ministers to direct the Health and Safety Executive to assist school and college employers to be clearer about what constitutes acceptable levels of risk in the management of COVID-19 and how they should act to mitigate these risks. Although thousands of schools have been working extremely hard to provide appropriate risk assessments for staff, it is already clear that many fall far short of what should be expected.
Now is the time for the robust involvement of the HSE in upholding workers’ rights. For a Government that has claimed to be championing the rights of working people, the Ministers must give teachers and parents the assurances they need by committing the HSE to investigate and enforce compliance and by ensuring that the HSE has all the resources it needs to uphold safety at work.