By Elizabeth Williams, Senior Professional Officer (Wales)
On 4 June 2020, General Secretary Deborah Lawson wrote to the Cabinet Minister for Education Kirsty Williams (pdf) to outline Voice's concerns following the Minister's announcement on 3 June of her proposals for all pupils in Wales to return to school for an extended Summer term.
The General Secretary wrote again to the Cabinet Minister on 17 June, setting out further concerns (pdf).
On 18 June, stakeholders found out via the media (BBC News) – rather than by the usual news release or written statement – that schools and councils would have the final say on whether the summer term is extended for an extra week:
A spokesman was quoted as saying that decisions over term dates were:
"best taken by local authorities and governing bodies, as they are better placed to understand their local circumstances".
On 22 June, Voice received a reply from the Minister (pdf).
Although long, the Cabinet Minister’s letter is deeply disappointing. It essentially reuses selected paragraphs from recent announcements and doesn’t directly address the majority of the points we raised, in particular:
- the necessity for an Equality Impact Assessment;
- guidance published after the initial announcement; or
- The various contractual issues outlined in the General Secretary's letter of 17 June.
I was particularly surprised to read the following on the second page of the letter.
"I have continued to work closely with the WLGA throughout this process and of course, we recognise that decisions over term dates are best taken by Local Authorities and Governing Bodies, as they are better placed to understand their local circumstances. I outlined in my statement on XX June that Local Authorities and Governing Bodies will need to progress the necessary statutory actions in relation to the next phase of schools."
The "statement" is not dated, and does not specify which statement, although I subsequently learned from Welsh Government officials that this was always the plan, as it was mentioned in the Cabinet Minister's oral statement to the Senedd on 3 June, but I feel that slipping it out in this way, rather than making the usual high profile media and social media announcements, was a tactic designed to shift any blame or backlash away from the Welsh Government and onto schools, local authorities and the unions. This appears to be an attempt to pass the buck for an ill-thought-out policy.
Further, the Cabinet Minister does not explicitly specify what is meant by ‘statutory actions’. For example, local authorities are bound by the School Teachers' Pay and Conditions (Wales) Document ( STPC(W)D), a statutory document, so do not have the legal powers to extend the contractual requirements of teachers to work beyond 195 days per school year. This, in part, has led to the current state of confusion, with the majority of local authorities not planning to open schools for the additional fourth week. It was also very unclear when the initial announcement on 3 June was made where the boundaries of decision-making lay, and this was quite apparent in the meetings with unions following that announcement.
It also appears that childcare provision in schools over the summer holidays are at a very early stage. We certainly have not discussed this in detail in Welsh Government meetings:
"I am in discussions with Ministers about arrangements for school-age children over the summer holiday period. Childcare providers will be increasing their operations from the end of the month and we know some local authorities are considering running local schemes, possibly utilising the hub model. I have confirmed that where such schemes are running, we would not expect it to be staffed by the education workforce."
Rest assured, we will continue our negotiations and discussions with the Welsh Government on behalf of members.
Joint statement from Welsh Government, WLGA and support staff trade unions (pdf) (24 June 2020)
Voice Cymru comments on statement by Kirsty Williams (3 June 2020)