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School leader unions call for government action over Covid disruption

Trade unions representing most of England’s school and college leaders have written jointly to Education Secretary @NadhimZahawi calling on him to reconsider the decision to withdraw free Covid testing from pupils and staff.

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), and Paul Whiteman, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), say many school leaders are reporting that disruption caused by Covid is greater than at any previous point during the pandemic and that it is increasingly difficult for leaders to keep their schools open.

“In the face of this extensive and ongoing disruption, the government’s decision to remove free access to symptomatic and asymptomatic testing for almost all pupils and staff feels reckless in the extreme,” they write.

They also call on Mr Zahawi to rethink the decision to publish school performance tables based on this summer’s exam results, and the decision to share Key Stage 2 SATs results with Ofsted.

“Refusing to recognise the impact on leaders, teachers, schools and communities of publishing inaccurate and meaningless data on school performance adds to the extreme stress under which education staff have been operating for more than two years now, and will exacerbate the recruitment and retention crisis that has been building for several years. Many members are telling us that this is the final straw which is leading them to step down from school or college leadership,” they say.

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

ASCL General Secretary Geoff Barton said:

“We have written to the Education Secretary because school and college leaders increasingly feel abandoned by a government which does not seem to care that Covid is causing chaos in education settings and that the first public exams in three years are just weeks away.”

Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary

NAHT General Secretary Paul Whiteman said:

“We have repeatedly warned the government that education is at breaking point. We hear sympathetic words and acknowledgement of the great work our members do but see little actual action to bring relief to the chaos.

“As children’s education continues to suffer, and as the physical and mental health of the school community continues to be at risk, we cannot wait for support any longer. We need a proper plan for how to live with Covid long-term that is focused on keeping levels low and reducing disruption, rather than just ignoring it.”

Messages from school leaders describe an increasingly fraught situation. They include:

  • “Covid 19 has created the longest staff absence list I can remember in over 25 years of teaching. In our department, Covid has hit many staff; we have had between 3 and 5 teachers out of school every day for the past month due to Covid 19, many for significant periods of time. The school is now receiving complaints about staff absence and year groups being sent home. I can see why they are frustrated. The government has peddled the narrative that the pandemic is effectively over, and everything is back to normal – and there is barely any coverage in the media of how Covid rates have hit schools.”
  • “Since Christmas, 342 of our 800 pupils have been absent having tested positive for Covid – including 64 of our 150 Year 11 pupils. I have also had 25 of our 51 teachers absent with Covid.”
  • “In our one-form entry primary school, we’ve had 55 confirmed cases of Covid in the last two weeks. Staff absence was at 40% for two weeks (45% of teachers and TAs absent), most of it Covid related and most staff too unwell to work from home. There were no suitable supply teachers. I had to make the difficult decision to move to remote learning for 5 classes at different stages in the last two weeks. Although the situation is now starting to improve, it’s still ongoing. Staff and children are still absent. Some of those who have had Covid previously are still not 100%.”
  • “My senior team and myself are covering 3/4 classes in the gym together daily and we have also had to ask year groups to learn from home on a rotation over the last week just so we can get by. Whilst some staff have had mild symptoms some are getting very ill and I find this such a worry.”

New Covid Measures in Education Settings

31st Mar 2022: The Department for Education emailed all schools to inform them of changes to Covid safety measures for schools from the 1st April, including an end to universal free testing and new guidance on isolation.

Mary Bousted

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: 

“Measures are being relaxed at a time when Covid cases are surging in schools and colleges. This makes no sense. We have repeatedly urged the Government to continue with free testing across society, including in all education settings, but these calls have been ignored. 

“Not only will schools no longer be able to access supplies of test kits but they are even being advised to not even hand out existing stock to staff or pupils from 1 April. With exams looming this is very poor timing. Schools needs clarity but instead the DfE is saying that adults ‘with symptoms of a respiratory infection and with a high temperature’ should ‘try to stay at home’, until they no longer have a high temperature, with no reference to other symptoms, including a cough. Children who are ‘unwell and have a high temperature’ should stay at home until they no longer have a high temperature. Adults who do test positive are being advised to ‘try to stay at home’ for five days and children for three days. This confusing guidance is a recipe for even more chaos and will make managing cases and preventing disruption even harder than it already is.”

Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“Many school leaders will be very worried about the government’s decision to go ahead with a further loosening of measures at a time when covid cases are rising rapidly in schools. The government’s own figures show that absences due to covid are back up to the levels we last saw in January and many schools are once again struggling to keep classes open.

“Given the current situation, it seems nothing short of reckless to be removing access to free testing. Testing is one of the few tools schools have left to try to break chains of transmission and there is a real concern that we could see more cases and outbreaks in schools as a result of this decision.

“School leaders, staff and families will quite rightly want to understand the scientific evidence that justifies further reducing the isolation period for those that test positive for Covid. The immediate concern is that by letting people who could still be contagious return to school too early, we could see an increase in cases and therefore more, rather than less disruption. If the medical advice has changed, then government has a duty to explain that to schools.”

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