Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 50 Number 34, September 5, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Teaching Staff Shoulder Responsibility for Safe School Reopening
while Government Will Not Engage or Provide Resources

Scotland's schools went back in August, while all schools in England and Wales will have been expected to return this first week in September. The government issued an eleventh-hour edict to schools on how to plan for local lockdowns, angering headteachers and prompting questions about resources. For example, the guidance also calls for increased cleaning in schools that operate rota systems, prompting calls for assistance in meeting costs.

The guidance set out four "tiers" of action that may be needed, depending on the level of government intervention in different areas of the country. The new guidance was issued shortly after 7pm on Friday, August 28, despite the fact many schools were ready to welcome pupils back the very next week and some had already begun their new terms.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, called the decision to publish so late on a Friday "nothing short of reprehensible".

"It demonstrates a complete lack of regard for the well-being of school leaders and their teams," he said in an email to members. "The decision confirms the government simply does not understand the commitment and professionalism of school leaders who will feel compelled to act immediately." However, he said that having gone through the guidance, NAHT felt it was "unlikely" that members will need to take "urgent action over the weekend".

"With all schools currently deemed to be at what the government is calling 'tier one' (open to all pupils), there is no immediate rush to abandon your bank holiday plans. After all, you have worked throughout the pandemic and a great deal of the summer."

The government's actions or its inaction have angered heads, teaching staff and support staff alike. It was reported that, for instance, in June school leaders had had to read almost 100 updates to government guidance during the pandemic.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL leadership union, said: "We've been calling for more contingency planning from the government in the event of local lockdowns, so we are pleased that it has finally published some guidance to this effect.

"But to wait until the Friday night before most schools return isn't the government's finest moment. Obviously, schools haven't had any chance whatsoever to incorporate this into their planning and will now have to revisit the plans they have put in place."

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said it was "regrettable" that the government had published more guidance at such a late hour, and that his union had been asking for clarity "for some time".

"There must be a recognition that whilst children will be affected by local restrictions, so too will teachers and other staff in schools. The availability of staff where there is a local lockdown or outbreak may mean that schools have to limit provision if they cannot be staffed safely," he said.

"The government now needs to confirm that schools will have the additional resources they need to deliver an effective remote learning offer to all pupils as well as funding for additional staff that will be necessary to maintain continuity of provision in the event of local disruption."

Through the course of the pandemic the government has been refusing to engage with teachers and their unions. It has spun education guidance out of thin air, negating the human factor involved in education, and thus based on a crass lack of familiarity with the sector, an absence of concern for the individual child, and an indifference towards those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Government decisions have exposed a huge gap between guidance and the reality of life in schools, The incoherence of the government's actions contrast with the commitment teachers have shown to supporting their schools, their pupils and their communities, often very quickly and without appropriate advice from government.

The refusal of governments to put the well-being of students, education personnel and parents as the guiding principle of their actions is putting tremendous pressure on their physical and mental health. Now teachers and education workers are going through the most stressful conditions as they attempt to guarantee the safety of students, parents and staff, as well as teach their pupils.

We salute the teachers and support workers when the system is failing them, and they themselves take up their social responsibility against all the odds. What they are finding is that their collective and sympathetic approach to resolving the problems is strengthening their resolve to ensure that the future direction of education is human-centred, serving pupils, staff and society as a whole. Their authority lies in their determination to speak in their own name as part of fighting in defence of the rights of all.

Experience with lack of resources

According to personal experience of a head teacher, reported in Schools Week, Devon schools have been poorly funded for more than a decade. The head teacher writes:

"We come near the bottom for per-pupil funding. And my school has been in deficit for several years. We've made staff redundancies and many other sacrifices to reduce that deficit. My local authority told me this year I had to have at least £5 in the black. For this financial year, we finally managed to produce a budget that would remove us from an end of year deficit - just. Then we entered lockdown.

"The school immediately lost the income that it generates through letting the hall for a dance club and fitness classes, to the tune of about £2,000 so far. At the same time, the budget for cleaning staff and materials began to spiral.

"The increase in hours worked by cleaners and extra cleaning materials has cost us £5,000 more so far. With the loss of income, this means at least £7,000 less than anticipated at the beginning of the financial year. As the budget is so finely balanced, a few thousand pounds of extra spending and loss of income puts us straight back into a deficit. It's therefore just another astonishing turn from this government, following a summer of late and confusing decisions, to hear they think that schools can cope with this extra cost. How can this be right?

"When budgets were planned, we had no idea how much would need to be spent making the school safe. Certainly in the case of my school, we can't afford it. I am now forced to look at where I can make 'savings'. Trips and visits are under review, which are so important for primary school pupils in terms of cultural capital. About 35 per cent of our pupils are from socio-economically disadvantaged families. That's not to mention all the additional interventions we want to put in place to close the learning gap that has widened during lockdown. Perhaps the new phonetically decodable reading books we were going to purchase will have to wait.

"That's a deep shame, as the children returning to us need help to get back on track with their learning. Meanwhile, I have a friend running a school in an area hit by a local lockdown whose school bill for Covid-19 measures is now £55,000. They lead a bigger school than me - yet the thought of having to find tens of thousands of pounds if there is a local outbreak leaves me in despair."

(Sources: School Week, teaching unions)


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