UK: Concerns remain over reopening of schools

published 15 July 2020 updated 9 June 2021

Education unions in the UK have voiced deep concern concerning the reopening of schools and education institutions planned for September.

NASUWT: Need for a coordinated national plan to deliver the full and safe reopening of all schools

Teachers and headteachers have raised questions with the Department for Education about additional funding for schools, protections for vulnerable staff, and extra cleaning provision.

On 8 July, NASUWT General Secretary Dr Patrick Roach stressed that his union “recognises the importance of schools reopening to all children as soon as it is safe to do so. The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson needs to develop a coordinated national plan to deliver the full and safe reopening of all schools in September.”

He added that public authorities need to address, as a matter of urgency the many practical and logistical issues that have been raised by teachers and headteachers across the country.

“Schools have only a few weeks before they close for the summer break,” he noted. “Teachers and headteachers need urgent clarification from the Department for Education (DfE) if they are to be able to meet the guidance on September re-opening consistently and safely.”

The NASUWT leader has also written to the Education Secretary raising the concerns and calling for clarity from the DfE in the event of a confirmed case of COVID-19 in a school and to ensure the priority for COVID-19 testing includes teachers.

NEU: Educators need clear guidance based on scientific evidence

Commenting on guidance issued by the Department for Education on 2 July, intended to prepare schools for full opening from September, National Education Union (NEU) Joint General Secretary, Kevin Courtney, insisted that “we all want to see a full return for all pupils from September, but this must be safe, well-planned and in pupils' short-term and long-term interests. The litmus test for school leaders, teachers, support staff and parents alike will be a thought-through strategy that puts to bed any concerns over safety.”

He found, however, the released governmental guidance “unlikely to address these concerns”. For example, he said, “the Government has to be able to convince school staff that sufficient measures are in place to make it ‘COVID secure’ for them to work in a class of 30 or more children – with neither social distancing nor personal protective equipment, and often with poor ventilation”.

For him, “the Government must, as a minimum, be able to show that Public Health England and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies are in complete agreement with them that when the guidelines are implemented in September, transmission networks can be managed and vulnerable staff kept safe”. This will certainly depend on the case count being lower in September than it is now, he acknowledged.

He went on to point out that the guidelines put an emphasis on test and trace, but parents, school leaders and teachers will be wondering 'where is it?' While the NEU has been calling for track and trace since March, the Government needs to be able to inspire confidence that track, trace and isolate will be capable of taking the load by September, Courtney said.

He also expressed his union’s concern that public authorities do not have a plan B if these guidelines do not work or if cases are higher in September. The NEU therefore issued a 10-point Education Recovery Plan, urging the Government to find extra classroom space, mobilise supply teachers, beginner teachers finishing college, and those colleagues who have left the profession.

Courtney concluded by highlighting that “we need much clearer science as well as guidance that is grounded in reality, for the full return of all pupils to work. As ever, the NEU is ready to talk with Government to find a way forward.”

You can read the Education International Guidance on Reopening Schools and Education Institutions available here.