Reported attempts by the prime minister's office to point to schools being "overzealous" in their Covid management by asking too many pupils to self-isolate is a "cynical attempt to shift the blame" for education disruption on schools, a headteachers' leader has said.
In a strongly-worded letter to the prime minister, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of Schools and Colleges Leaders, writes: "We are dismayed by media reports that Downing Street appears to be suggesting that schools are being overzealous in their interpretation of government guidance on the management of Covid cases and that they are sending home too many pupils.
"This feels like a cynical attempt to shift the blame for your government’s failure to address the escalating educational disruption of recent weeks on to schools at a time when they are working under extraordinarily difficult circumstances to manage this deteriorating situation."
Williamson: School bubbles could be 'lifted' for summer
Mr Barton explained that schools have been following the government's advice diligently and that they have been working with the Department for Education and Public Health England to decide which pupils and staff need to self-isolate if they have come in contact with a Covid case.
He also reminded the PM that contact tracing has taken a toll on the workload of school staff.
He said: "School and college staff spend many hours on contact tracing duties, including during evenings, weekends and school holidays, despite this being a public health rather than an educational task."
Mr Barton also called on the government to provide clarity on what awaits schools in September.
The letter comes as 48 MPs including the Commons Education Select Committee chair Robert Halfon signed a letter to the prime minister warning that the current policy on isolation for school bubbles is “disproportionate” and “unsustainable”.
This came after official data showed that 279,000 children in England are isolating because of possible contact with a Covid-19 case.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson has said that the government is looking at lifting restrictions in schools and has suggested that school bubbles could end on 19 July.
Below is the ASCL letter in full:
Dear Prime Minister
We are dismayed by media reports that Downing Street appears to be suggesting that schools are being over-zealous in their interpretation of government guidance on the management of Covid cases and that they are sending home too many pupils. This feels like a cynical attempt to shift the blame for your government’s failure to address the escalating educational disruption of recent weeks on to schools at a time when they are working under extraordinarily difficult circumstances to manage this deteriorating situation. It is doubly frustrating because nothing has yet been communicated to them about what Covid management processes they will be expected to follow in the autumn term despite the summer holidays fast approaching.
You must know that schools and colleges have been diligently following the government’s complex guidance on the management of Covid cases since last September and they are very well aware of what it says. They don’t automatically send home whole bubbles or make decisions on who to send home on their own. In reality, they endeavour to identify close contacts, and they work with the Department for Education’s advice service or Public Health England local protection teams to decide who to send home. These decisions will be based on many factors such as whether there are single or multiple cases, the movements of pupils during the course of the day including on school transport, the layout of classrooms, and the ability of younger pupils in particular to socially distance. School and college staff spend many hours on contact tracing duties, including during evenings, weekends and school holidays, despite this being a public health rather than an educational task.
The reality of these rules is that for every positive Covid case there is bound to be a substantial knock-on effect because everyone identified as a close contact must then also self-isolate even though they may not have the virus. Over the past few weeks, the number of positive cases in schools has risen and each of these cases then leads to more children self-isolating who are close contacts. The result is a very rapid growth in the number of children who are absent. This is the last thing that schools and colleges want to happen after 15 months of educational disruption but they have to follow the government’s rules.
We hope that you will respond to this letter by publicly recognising that schools and colleges are following government guidance on managing Covid cases and that you support their work during this crisis. We would ask you also to urgently set out your government’s plans to bring to an end this ongoing educational disruption. This situation simply cannot continue next term. Schools, colleges, parents and pupils need certainty and clarity about the road ahead.
Association of School and College Leaders