By Deborah Lawson, Assistant General Secretary, Community Union (Voice Section)
As England goes into lockdown, there are calls from some for schools and other education settings to close too.
At the moment, Voice Community’s position is that we support the government position on early years settings, schools and colleges, and universities remaining open. We agree that it is vital for the welfare and mental health of children and young people – but only if it is, and remains, safe to do so.
There can be no substitute for face-to-face teaching and learning, and we remain concerned that the closure of schools and colleges would only further disadvantage a generation who have already had their education severely disrupted as well as widening the attainment gap.
In order for settings to remain open, we are calling for comprehensive safety measures for settings to implement, and I have set these out in a letter to the Department for Education.
They will need to include measures such as:
- face-coverings and PPE (some changes have now been made to the guidance on face coverings);
- perspex screens;
- procedures to maintain social distancing; and
- guidance on how schools deploy staff to maintain bubbles, since we have heard too many reports of staff being deployed across multiple bubbles without any additional protection.
There may need to be provision and funding for:
- cover staff to fill in for self-isolating colleagues;
- consideration of additional staffing; and even
- additional classrooms in order to reduce class sizes in the longer term.
We have long been proponents of a robust risk assessment system whereby settings, leaders and employees are all responsible for contributing to the safety of each other. For many, this has secured the ability to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the employer, but where it is now fraying is in the need to protect vulnerable groups such as those previously identified as critically vulnerable, critically extremely vulnerable and those who are pregnant. Much more needs to be done to guarantee their safety and wellbeing and to protect them from discrimination when they need to isolate.
In order for settings to implement even some of these necessary measures, there must be adequate funding. It is unacceptable for schools, colleges and other education settings to pick up the bill when they have remained active throughout, providing resources far outside of their remit to care for children.
This additional funding would ensure that settings meet their legal obligation to ensure safety for all site users and does not compromise on their ability to provide full and comprehensive educational provision which would place the disadvantaged at even greater risk.
Staff deserve answers
Community (Voice Section) members and all those working in the education sector deserve answers. These critical workers have been working non-stop under incredibly stressful circumstances and they need to know they are not an afterthought. They need to know that their voices are being heard.
We are pleased that some of our questions have been answered, and will continue to press the DfE for more answers.