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@NEUnion Special Schools Survey: serious questions about safety remain unanswered 

  • The vast majority of staff in special schools (96%) are unable to maintain social distancing.
  • Half of members working in special schools (49%) fear for their personal safety.
  • 86% think clear scientific evidence on children as carriers must be presented before wider opening of special schools.

The findings of our latest survey – conducted last week – bring into sharp focus the particular challenges facing staff working in special schools during the Covid-19 pandemic, who are supporting children with special educational needs and disability (SEND).

Most special schools have remained open throughout lockdown. This is an environment where social distancing is not possible and close contact is the norm. Many SEND pupils need personal care, support with medical interventions during the school day and have communication needs which make social distancing very tricky.

Headline Figures

1,223 members of the National Education Union, all working in special school settings, have provided a clear picture of life on the frontline working with children with complex needs. The answers reflect the additional and specific risks for pupils and staff in special schools, as well as their families. 

  • 96% said they were unable to maintain social distancing at their school.
  • 84% perceived an increased exposure to Covid-19 by working on the school site.
  • 96% fear a high risk of airborne transmission as a result of pupils spitting, dribbling, biting, coughing and sneezing.
  • 49% do not feel safe in their current working environment.
  • 93% said that schools should meet the NEU’s Five Tests before a wider opening.
  • 83% agree that the mental health and wellbeing of both pupils and staff should be a priority upon wider opening.

 “It is not just risky, it is dangerous. We have had cases already and people are getting ill.”

 “The children in our setting do not understand social distancing.”

 “The children don't socially distance and we have had some instances of spitting and needing to physically manage children due to them attacking other children or staff. Therefore, I can't say that it is a safe environment.”

 “I feel we and the pupils should be tested regularly whilst the incidence of Covid-19 is still high.”

Special school staff tell us that despite the challenges in the sector they are committed to supporting pupils both in school and those remaining at home. They have continued to work with families throughout the crisis and to liaise with external agencies on their behalf and for the benefit of pupils. Wider opening of schools to more pupils is, for most staff, about focussing firstly on the well-being and happiness of the children.  

“I do worry that the young people within school will struggle with the limited resources and not be able to access their usual supporting resources throughout the day, such as break-out spaces, sensory rooms and the like, as each of these would need to be deep cleaned between use. I fear that the emotional and well-being implications of this could be catastrophic for our young people, and far more detrimental that some missed time in education”.

“We will be doing some basic recapping and re-learning, but the main focus will be on well-being and rebuilding relationships”. 


 Pupil Attendance

Respondents told us how many pupils were physically attending their school during lockdown:



1-5 pupils


6-10 pupils


11-15 pupils


16-20 pupils



In their written comments, some outliers reported attendances of more than 50, and even 250. This is during a time when many staff have been forced to self-isolate, are in a vulnerable category or live with someone who is.

Pupils are more likely to attend a special school during the pandemic. In lockdown the proportion of special school intakes attending school settings has stood at 6%, compared to the national average of 2% for all schools. This proportion has more recently risen to 8%, while the national average has remained the same.

“With small numbers of students in, lots of reminders can be given on social distancing and monitoring what they have touched for additional cleaning but with increasing number of students will be near impossible in my opinion.”

Wider opening

There are significant concerns across a range of issues. We asked, “If more pupils were to return to school in the coming weeks/months, which issues would you have significant concern around?” The respondents’ multiple-choice answers were as follows: 

Inability to maintain social distancing


Access to PPE


Risk from children as carriers of Covid-19


Increased exposure to Covid-19


Increased risk to my family


Increased risk to the children


Engaging students with learning


Pupil and staff wellbeing


Pupil mental health


Staff mental health


Not enough staff available to maintain proper ratios



“At the moment with only seven students, it is okay but as of June 1st, we could have up to 31 students which I don't feel is very safe.”

“It’s just impossible to know, we’re only safe if nobody is infected, as soon as one person has it, the whole school will too.”        

In terms of PPE, respondents have been offered masks (48%), gloves (71%), visors (20%), aprons (50%) and full gowns (1%) or all-in-one protective suits (1%). Just 14% believe the PPE available to them is adequate, 39% think it is not adequate and 44% cannot be sure. 7% of respondents had not been offered or provided with any PPE at all.

 “Our pupils will either attempt (and manage) to remove PPE or will be absolutely terrified and unable to understand us.”

 “We have gloves for toileting but that is all. We can also ask for masks if we want them but haven’t got enough for everyone.”

 “Staff require PPE but it will be distressing for the students to not see staff faces.”

 A week ago (21 May), the National Education Union published specific guidance for special schools preparing for wider opening. This was originally intended to reflect Department for Education guidance, but none had been forthcoming; it was belatedly released on 26 May. Previously only a risk assessment document had been published by the DfE, on 19 April – almost a month after lockdown began.

Commenting on the findings of this survey, Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

 “Staff in special schools care deeply and build marvellous relationships with their students, which enrich the lives of staff as much as students. These staff are experts who are deeply professional. Their questions come from a sensible professional instinct – safeguarding the interest of their students and their families.

 “This survey is a startling reminder of the risks teachers, heads and special school staff have been facing in recent months. This is a complex sector with acute challenges. It is not good enough for the Department for Education to release guidance so tardily, when the wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable children in society ought to be paramount.

 “This is why our Five Tests are such a vital prerequisite for the successful and safe wider opening of schools. (1) We will not have a ‘world beating’ track and trace system fully working by Monday, and it is folly to suggest otherwise. Current guidance for schools remains inadequate on social distancing and regular testing has not yet reached the workforce in any significant way.

 “We have been lobbying about the lack of PPE in schools where staff are at risk and where physical contact is needed to support children and young people. The National Education Union has written to the chief executive of Public Health England, the Department for Education and the Secretary of State. We will continue to urgently press for better advice and proper support for this sector.”    


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