Letter to DfE about lockdown

Letter from Assistant General Secretary Deborah Lawson to the Department for Education, following the Prime Minister’s announcement that schools and other education settings would remain open during the COVID-19 ‘lockdown’ in England from 5 November 2020.

Department for Education
Sanctuary Buildings
Great Smith Street
London SW1P 3BT

3 November 2020

Following the Prime Minister’s announcement at the weekend that schools and education settings would remain open during this new period of ‘lockdown’, along with other unions, we have published our position statement on our website

At this moment in time, we are minded to support the government position on early years settings, schools and colleges, and universities remaining open as we agree that it is vital for the welfare and mental health of children and young people – but we must also be clear that this can only happen if it is, and remains, safe to do so.

We know that 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.

Therefore, in order for settings to remain open, we are calling for comprehensive safety measures for settings to implement. This will need to include measures such as face-coverings and PPE, perspex screens and procedures to maintain social distancing as well as 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, and there must be 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 will 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.

This disadvantage is not limited to the impact on staff but also extends to learners, especially in relation to SATs and other primary assessments and GCSE and A Level exams. Whilst we appreciate that discussions with the STA and Ofqual are ongoing, we appeal to you to consider the very real fact that these assessments cannot take place this year because of the significant and ongoing learning loss; and to look at suitable alternatives such as coursework and the use of assessment windows, as are being considered in other countries and jurisdictions, to fairly measure and judge the learning and achievement of all.

Reports that the National Tutoring Scheme has commenced is reassuring, but we have concerns that it will be difficult to recruit sufficient tutors to make a difference for this exam series. In the longer term, it may be beneficial to support parents to employ tutors to maintain the sector, improve standards of achievement and begin to close the attainment gap. 

We agree that closing or partly closing schools should be a last resort, but we have concerns about the workload which is placed on staff in the middle ground, where settings remain open for some learners and closed to others, and we would want confirmation from the department on the requirement that schools adhere to the provisions in the STPCD to protect staff from overwork during this time. Before any additional duties are required, there must be careful consideration of the impact upon staff and their wellbeing as well as the focus on maintaining educational provision.

Additionally, Voice Community has expressed concern in the past over expectations on staff to live-stream lessons from their homes, and it is essential that safeguarding measures are put in place to protect both teachers and pupils during any online learning, and we must not see teachers forced into teaching live lessons from home whilst also being required to care for and home-school their own children.

Early years settings, schools and colleges and universities, as well as the public in general, deserve clear and well-communicated guidance from government now about when and how existing contingency measures would be implemented and what these will look like, to allow reasonable planning time.

There needs to be more consistency in how isolation is instigated and managed, and there needs to be further support for staff on low incomes who have to self-isolate and for families to supervise children when they have to stay at home. The evidence suggests that much of the viral spread is outside of a school’s control and it is important they are not held responsible for transmission on public transport, outside or in other public areas.

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 and that is why we are writing.

We are committed to working with you to highlight the needs and concerns of our members and to collectively navigate the road ahead, and look forward to hearing from you in how, together, we can achieve this.

Yours sincerely

Deborah Lawson
Assistant General Secretary
Community Union (Voice Section)

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