Teachers tell PM to 'get a grip' on Covid school safety

Teaching union accused PM of failing school staff and pupils after its school reopening safety demands were ignored

Claudia Civinini

NEU write to PM

Boris Johnson has "failed" teachers, pupils and parents and must now do "everything in [his] power" to ensure schools are safe and can remain open, teachers have said today.

The NEU teaching union has today published a letter it has sent to Mr Johnson and the education secretary Gavin Williamson to raise safety issues in reopened schools it describes as "so serious and pressing that its content has been made public".

This letter comes as a previous communication by the NEU in June, outlining its proposals for an Education Recovery plan, a series of measures needed for a safe wider reopening of schools and colleges, went unanswered.

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The letter asks for a series of critical measures in the immediate term. These are:

  • improve the availability of testing and the efficiency of the test, track and trace programme;
  • report to trade unions of all school outbreaks, looking at causes, steps taken in response and what can be learned from them;
  • carry out regular asymptomatic testing of school staff and older secondary students;
  • monitor ventilation in schools and compulsory use of masks in higher areas of incidence where other mitigations weren’t possible;
  • ensure clinically extremely vulnerable staff are supported to work from home;
  • make emergency efforts to reduce class sizes, mobilising supply and younger teachers to take them;
  • source new spaces for schools to enable them to be less crowded and better able to support social distancing;
  • guarantee all school health and safety costs will be reimbursed centrally.  

Commenting on the letter, Kevin Courtney and Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretaries of the NEU, said: “Boris Johnson has had three months to get a grip on the practical realities of getting schools and colleges open and keeping them safe.

"He has failed staff, parents and young people. His wilful disregard for the advice offered to him, matched with his regular displays of blind optimism, are an insult to everyone in the community.  

“School and college leaders, teachers and other staff are worried about access to tests, with many being advised to travel hundreds of miles to obtain one. This is not a sustainable way of coping with outbreaks. Schools and colleges must have quick access to test, track and trace, and not be continually confronted with obstacles that should have been resolved months ago. 

“It is vital that the government does everything in its power to permit schools and colleges to remain open, for as many young people as possible, for as long as possible.  

“We want schools to be open and to stay open. But we also want them to be safe. Our plan gives the nation the best chance of achieving that aim.”   

Longer-term measures

Beyond urgent measures to ensure schools are safe to operate, the NEU has added further recommendations as the education sector grapples with the consequences of the pandemic.

The NEU calls for plans to be made to ensure blended learning options are accessible, and for the government to step up its provision of laptop and other devices to ensure that no child is left behind.

In terms of exams, the NEU calls for suspending national testing in primary schools and for tweaks to GCSEs and A levels for next year, including reducing assessed content and working with teachers and school leaders to ensure that a robust national system of moderated, centre-assessed grades can be developed.

As for Ofsted, the NEU points out it "shared the dismay" of other figures in the sector regarding the announced watchdog visits in the autumn. 

"In these hugely challenging times for school leaders, Ofsted should only be making visits to schools where there are safeguarding concerns," the letter reads.

The letter in full

Dear prime minister,

We want schools and colleges to be safe, so they can stay open.  

We wrote to you on 10 June, putting forward the NEU’s education recovery plan. We have received no reply. It is clearly of crucial importance that the education of the nation’s children and young people suffers as little disruption as possible because of Covid-19. We believe that measures we outlined in our recovery plan are necessary to ensure that education continues for all pupils, especially for those from disadvantaged families. 

It is vital that your government does everything in its power to ensure schools are safe and to permit them to remain open, for as many children as possible, for as long as possible.  

To do that, your first responsibility is to keep case numbers as low as possible and to stop them rising. Cases have risen by 60 per cent in England in the last week and that is of great concern to our union and its members. 

We note that you have introduced the new rule of six and renewed public health messaging, which we feel has been missing for much of the summer – lost in messaging such as “eat out to help out”. We do hope your steps work but, if they do not, you must go further.  

It is clear that your government must improve the availability of testing and the efficiency of the test, track and trace programme. We are disturbed to hear from headteacher members that staff are being told they need to travel long distances to get a test. These are staff who are showing symptoms – it is vital that these people get tests and results as quickly as possible.  

In many areas of the country, cases are already too high with local authorities being put on watchlists as areas of concern. It is vital that you act now to reassure parents, carers and staff across the whole country, but particularly in these areas.  

We call on you to ensure:  

  • Regular reporting, including to trade unions, of reviews of all school and college Covid-19 outbreaks, looking at causes, steps taken in response and lessons learned. 
  • Regular asymptomatic testing of school and college staff and older secondary students, especially in areas of higher incidence. This would ensure cases were caught faster and transmission networks disrupted as well as providing reassurance. This fits with the idea of your "moonshot" – but we believe it should start in schools and colleges now. 
  • Proactive monitoring of ventilation in schools and colleges and compulsory use of masks in areas of higher incidence where other mitigations weren’t possible. Government-funded provision of medical masks to all staff who are more vulnerable, including those aged over 60 as recommended by WHO.  
  • Clinically extremely vulnerable staff should be supported to work from home and that this should be extended to clinically vulnerable staff in areas of highest incidence.  
  • Emergency efforts are made to reduce class sizes, especially in the areas of highest incidence. Bigger class sizes lead to bigger transmission networks and our class sizes are among the largest in Europe. These class sizes are likely to lead to rota operations in some areas of higher incidence. The Scottish and Welsh governments have employed students finishing their PGCE and BEd courses to help. Your government should do the same, mobilising both supply and younger teachers to reduce class sizes.  
  • Local authorities permitted and resourced to find extra space for schools and colleges, especially in areas of higher incidence to enable them to be less crowded and more able to support social distancing. 
  • A guarantee given to schools and colleges that all Covid-19-related costs, including staffing and health and safety costs, will be fully funded by the government. School and college leaders are already reporting that the cost of implementing Covid-secure schools is becoming prohibitive. Safety must not be compromised because of financial constraints. 

As well as looking at safety and continuity of education, it is vital your government recognises that you should be supporting schools, and the professionals who work in them, in a number of other ways.  

  • Plans must be made, and resources provided, for blended learning – pupils learning at school and college and at home with all pupils having both face-to-face contact and remote learning when this is safe. This must be resourced by the government and teachers supported to develop blended learning.  
  • Children and young people living in poverty – their wellbeing, health and access to learning – must remain a key priority. The harm caused by hunger, poor housing and the digital divide will continue to affect millions. 700,000 young people live in homes without internet access. To counter the digital divide and make sure no young person is left behind, the government must step up its scheme to provide wifi access and laptops for disadvantaged children.
  • GCSE and A levels must be changed to provide a fair assessment of young people’s attainment. Exams cannot cover all the current syllabus because students have missed five months of school attendance. This situation will affect those in disadvantaged or urban areas disproportionately.  

Delaying exams by a few weeks is not sufficient. We wrote to Gavin Williamson on 19 August urging him to make bigger changes to next year’s exams in order to build confidence that the grades awarded properly recognise and reward young people’s achievements.   

In particular, the government should: 

  • Reduce content assessed in GCSE and A-level exams, across all subjects, by making some topics optional to allow for the different order in which content will have been taught across the country.  
  • Work with teachers and school leaders to develop a robust national system of moderated, centre-assessed grades in case of a second spike in coronavirus or local lockdowns. 
  • As vocational qualifications are assessed module by module, schools and colleges should be allowed to adapt their assessments this year, with the approval of the exam board, as they were for summer 2020.  
  • National testing in primary schools, including the additional phonics check this term, should be suspended for 2020-21. All primary national testing is predominantly an accountability measure and will not be comparable to previous or subsequent years. 
  • Performance tables should continue to be suspended for this year. Any data will be a measure of the disruption caused by Covid-19 and not of school or pupil performance. Disruption is likely to affect pupils, schools and local areas which are most deprived. Performance tables will not give a fair picture.  

Finally, we share the dismay expressed by other leadership unions that Ofsted will be making school and college visits this term. In these hugely challenging times for school leaders, Ofsted should only be making visits to schools where there are safeguarding concerns. Her Majesties Inspectors (HMI) could gather the information they need to compile thematic reports on how schools are managing the return to full education of their pupils. 

The issues raised in this letter are so serious and pressing that we are making its contents public.

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Claudia Civinini

Claudia Civinini

Find me on Twitter @claudiacivinini

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