Today
Mon 29 November 2021

Sian Norris reports on confusion and concern in the education system as key workers accuse Gavin Williamson’s department of incompetence and failing to listen

“I don’t quite understand the Government’s motivation,” Mark (not their real name), a primary school teacher in east London, says. “But I don’t think it was from concern for the community of our school – which for me, the staff, even for the council, is the most important factor.” 

A week ago, Mark’s school was told by the local council that, due to rising COVID-19 infection rates in the borough, schools should close for the final days of the Autumn term. That same day, Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock told Parliament that a new strain of the virus had been identified.

Mark’s school sprung into action, putting plans in place to ensure that the most vulnerable children from across the community could continue coming into the classroom while most pupils stayed home. But, later that evening, the school was forced by the Department for Education to reopen.

For Alex (not their real name), whose school is in a nearby borough, the experience was similar: “We had moved everything forward – done the Christmas dinner, exchanged cards and said goodbye. Then at around 5pm, 6pm, on Monday night we were told the Government had threatened to sue us and we had to reopen.”

“The Government is either incompetent or screwing people over,” Alex adds. “And I don’t know which is worse. I haven’t seen the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson engage with teachers in good faith at all.”

Similar threats of legal action were made against Greenwich Council, where schools also planned to close on 14 December to protect staff and families from soaring infection rates. 


Disconnected 

The chaos has come, in part, from the Department for Education being increasingly “disconnected” from schools, according to Professor of Teacher Education at Leeds Beckett University Rachel Lofthouse.

“It’s become a bit of a cliché now but I found the Department for Education behaviour over the last week to be really shocking but not at all surprising,” she told Byline Times. “It feels like this is a Government department that has lost sense of the reality of schools and communities. That’s really scary.

“None of the local authorities and multi-academy trusts took decisions for closing at the end of the term haphazardly. To make any of those decisions is extraordinarily hard and takes a large degree of courage, so to have those trampled all over was utterly reckless.”

Mark agrees: “Local government knows their area. If they say the rates are really worrying and we should close, I don’t know who the Government thinks they are to override that.”

Sara (not their real name), a key worker whose daughter is in a maintained nursery run by the local authority in Greenwich, was initially told on 9 December that her nursery would shut on 17 December. On Sunday 13 December, the nursery informed her they would now close at the end of the following day – only for them to reopen following a legal threat from the Government. 

The to-ing and fro-ing “ignored the needs of working parents and that means working mothers,” she explains. Although Sara supported the council’s decision, the chaos of the 48 hours was “very difficult”.

She told Byline Times: “It affected maintained nurseries too, not just schools, and working from home while caring for a two, three or four-year-old is even more difficult than with an older child.”

“I can see the impact of the parents in my school,” Mark explains. “It was quite a stressful time for them. There’s a lot of deprivation in our area and many of our parents don’t have English as a first language. In times like this people look to the school and that’s their role in the community, to provide stability in uncertain times.”

We now know that the rising infection rates that triggered councils to shut schools relates to a new strain of the Coronavirus which has a higher transmission risk. It was first identified in October from a sample taken the month before. However, the Government maintains that it did not know about the increased risk until last Friday, despite lockdown failing to prevent infection rates rising in Kent. 


Vulnerable Staff Members

One of the main concerns regarding schools remaining open while infection rates soar was the risk to clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) staff members.

While most CEV employees are told to work from home if they can, guidance issued in August said that school employees “considered extremely clinically vulnerable are now advised they can return to work as long as they maintain social distancing”. Similarly, people over the age of 60 are told to “minimise contact with others” – but this doesn’t apply to the 10,000 school staff members aged 60-plus.

Although the Office for National Statistics found that there was “no evidence of difference in the positivity rate between teachers and other key workers” for COVID-19, the impact on clinically vulnerable school staff can be seen anecdotally.

One headteacher in Walthamstow took to Twitter to share how a high-risk staff member is “fighting for her life” because she had to keep coming into work when the guidance for schools changed. Another wrote how an at-risk teacher in Greenwich “got rushed to hospital” after testing positive for COVID-19. 

Teaching and public sector unions had expressed concern on 3 December that “schools will have fewer protective measures in place to reduce the risk of the spread of COVID-19 than most other workplaces” and “staff who are medically vulnerable or otherwise at higher risk will still therefore be at a greater risk of an adverse outcome if they contract the virus”.

“I think it’s a good example of how the Department for Education has been allowed to function as if it can set its own rules around health and safety for thousands of workers,” says Professor Lofthouse. “Teachers have not been allowed to draw a line and say ‘I need to keep myself safe’. Knowing your colleagues have had little choice but to return to work, not because your headteachers or governors expect them to be there, but because nobody in Government has made adequate provision for those colleagues, is really heartbreaking.”

The Government has now told schools to switch to a staggered return with online learning in January. A staggered roll-out of Coronavirus testing for secondary schools in the new year means that “all secondary schools and colleges in England will be able to test more of their staff and students in a round of free Coronavirus testing from the first week of January”.

Like most school staff, Alex is hopeful that schools will open – because “it’s better for stability and most kids want to come into school”. 

But the issue is “this thing of complete uncertainty” – as well as what Professor Lofthouse explains as the Department for Education being “disconnected” from schools. 

“There is no way we can get through this if teachers feel disempowered from making decisions on the ground that are right for their communities,” she insists. “Teachers and school leaders are the ones with the feet on the ground who can and should be allowed to make decisions.”

The Department for Education told Byline Times that a “huge expansion of rapid testing” would support secondary schools to stay open and “reduce the risk of transmission within local communities”. 

“The Chief Medical Officers have been consistently clear about the importance of children being in school for their mental health, wellbeing, and development,” the spokesperson added. “As such, there are no plans for schools to close and it has rightly been a national priority for all pupils to return to school full-time.”


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