Coronavirus: New measures to reduce numbers in schools

Unions report 'madness' of dozens of staff at virtually empty schools and say national approach to key workers is needed

Henry Hepburn

Coronavirus: New measures to reduce numbers in schools

Teachers and union leaders are hoping that new national guidelines will prevent a repeat of the "complete madness" of up to 50 school staff turning up to look after one pupil.

That was one of the most extreme examples cited by the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association (SSTA) yesterday, while the EIS union has this morning also said it was aware of examples from all over Scotland of staff numbers being needlessly far in excess of the number of students in a school.

Last night, the Scottish government and local authorities' body Cosla issued new guidance, which, along with other advice, asked employers to work "with unions and workers to identify only those staff absolutely necessary to deliver the Covid-19 response and to provide essential and safe services". There was also an announcement last night from health secretary on prioritised testing for coronavirus to allow key health and social care workers to return to work.

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EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said this morning that the worst case he had heard of was 20 staff for one pupil in a large secondary, although staff were allowed to go home in that instance.

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He told Tes Scotland: “I could cite examples from all over the country of staff being held in school buildings for no purpose, when the pupil numbers simply didn’t justify it.

“Last night’s announcements have probably put an end to that, but we’re now having to firefight some councils wanting to conscript staff into hubs, when it is clear that they have overwhelming numbers of volunteers capable of meeting demand.

“I understand why the Scottish government wanted to allow flexibility to meet local variations, but we could use some headline guidance because we don’t need 32 approaches right now.”

Yesterday, SSTA union general secretary Seamus Searson said that 50 staff arriving to look after one pupil was "complete madness and a sign of a lack of clear guidance from above", while on Monday the EIS said that some councils had "flouted" Scottish government advice over coronavirus and large numbers of staff and pupils were continuing to be asked to come into school.

At 8.45pm last night, the Scottish government and Cosla said in a joint statement: "To ensure front line staff in the fight against coronavirus (Covid-19) have access to essential childcare provision, employers are being urged to think critically about what staff are considered key workers.

"The plea from the Scottish government and Cosla comes as further guidance on key workers is published.

Before working parents seek childcare places, employers should consider:

  • Working with unions and workers to identify only those staff absolutely necessary to deliver the Covid-19 response and to provide essential and safe services.
  • Introducing new shift patterns, working from home, recruiting more staff or dropping non-essential tasks.
  • Having discussions with staff to identify if they can access any appropriate alternative childcare. This may include another parent or carer who is not a key worker.

Deputy first minister and education secretary John Swinney said: “We all have a vitally important role to play in the fight against Covid-19. For some that will involve a frontline role in a hospital, but for others, staying at home to care for your children will also help to save lives.

“Where children are unable to safely stay at home, including vulnerable children, local authorities are providing childcare. However, only key workers who cannot fulfil their critical functions when they are working remotely from home may qualify for critical childcare provision.

“The number of children taking up these places must be kept to an absolute minimum. The priority must be for children of the most critical key workers and for the most vulnerable children in our society.

“I would urge employers to look at the guidance and consider if there is any way they can provide their essential services in a way that enables children to stay at home.”

Cosla president Alison Evison said: “We recognise the extreme pressures faced by all businesses and employers at this very difficult time. Our priority is to ensure that vital services continue as far as possible. Local authorities have worked tirelessly to ensure that there is provision available for the children of key workers in an extremely tight timescale. However, our capacity to do so needs to be established in line with public health advice.

“The safety of our children, young people and staff is paramount. This guidance is aimed at making sure we all work together to get through this crisis while trying to minimise the impact on our society and economy.”

Meanwhile, in another announcement last night, prioritised testing for coronavirus will allow key health and social care workers to return to work, health secretary Jeane Freeman said.

The Scottish government has published guidance for NHS Scotland to prioritise testing to enable health and social care staff to get back to work, based on the pressures local boards are facing.

As testing capacity increases, this will be extended to other key workers.

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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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