For the DfE to produce unsafe guidance on behalf of a Government determined to have all schools fully opened in September, regardless of the scientific evidence or the risk to public health, should come as no surprise. But for the NEU to send out, belatedly, guidance that abandons its previous ‘5 tests’ - and instead restricts itself to the parameters of that DfE guidance - is a major disappointment. It is a mistake that needs to be urgently corrected.
The NEU’s ‘5 tests’ have not been met = there should be no full return at the start of next term
Further wider opening in September should begin only with a phased introduction of more students. Some ‘blended learning’ - both in school and remotely from home – will have to continue for some time yet.
The pressure on union leaders to buckle under the pressure from the media - and politicians of both main parties - to accept full opening in September is enormous. However, unions need to stand firm and protect their members.
outbreak in Leicester has confirmed, if further proof were needed, that the NEU’s
‘5 tests’ have not been met; that schools and young people contribute to the
transmission of the virus; that testing, tracing and data sharing systems
remain shambolic; and that infection rates are at risk of rising upwards again.
|Just some of the recent conclusions from 'Independent SAGE'|
With the 5 tests not met, unions should be insisting that full opening is unsafe at the start of September. Instead, a precautionary approach should be taken, monitoring the risk of increased infection rates from both wider schools opening and the ending of lockdown measures more generally.
Such an assessment of risk would have to conclude that any further wider opening should only be based on a phased introduction of more students, with some ‘blended learning’ – both in school and remotely from home - having to continue for some time yet.
As the NEU’s ‘10-point Education Recovery plan’ states, this must be resourced by Government and with low-income households given the resources they need to learn at home, including access to books, laptops and internet access. Schools will also need the funding to employ additional staff to provide that learning with safe reduced class sizes, directly employing supply staff to assist. Schools should also operate a ‘recovery curriculum’ focusing on well-being.
However, and I believe wrongly, the latest joint union guidance sent out by the NEU fails to propose either phased opening or reduced class sizes. [It only suggests that schools should have “an alternative plan in case, for any reason such as a renewed local lockdown, full opening cannot take place at the beginning of September”]. The union advice should call for a phased opening more generally – and unions must also oppose the fining of parents who do not believe that schools are yet safe enough for their children to attend.
Under the law, all staff should be provided with face masks. If it is felt that teaching and learning is too difficult in those circumstances, then other means to reduce risk that are at least as effective must be adopted.
The joint union guidance has been issued too late in the term to give reps and local officers time to adequately negotiate with employers. It is also very long – yet fails to focus on key aspects of health and safety legislation, particularly Regulation 4 of the PPE at Work Regulations 1992 [This key legislation is linked to in section 6 of the joint guidance on PPE but its contents are not spelt out for reps’ attention.]
These regulations state clearly that “every employer shall ensure that suitable personal protective equipment is provided to his employees who may be exposed to a risk to their health or safety while at work except where and to the extent that such risk has been adequately controlled by other means which are equally or more effective”.
School staff are only too aware of the contradiction between the advice being issued about the importance of wearing face masks to reduce droplet and aerosol transmission in indoor spaces like shops, especially where there is limited social distancing – and the apparently magical lack of the same precautions being necessary in classrooms!
The latest joint union guidance certainly mentions PPE, but only in particular circumstances: when supervising a child with symptoms; one that may spit or cough; for specific staff like Early Years and SEND settings; for staff previously deemed to be extremely clinically vulnerable, clinically vulnerable (including pregnant women) or otherwise at higher risk, or who have vulnerable family members, who are returning to work in school.
These are certainly all situations where PPE should be provided. However, the protection will only be of limited value to staff at risk if they are the only staff wearing PPE. Others around them, which could include an asymptomatic child or adult breathing out droplets, really need to be wearing a mask too.
If, and scientific opinion seems to be hardening on this, face masks reduce the risks of viral transmission indoors, then, under the Regulations – and they state ‘SHALL’, not ‘should’ – staff should ALL be provided with masks. Students really need to be as well. However, if it is felt that teaching and learning is too difficult in those circumstances, then the law says other means to reduce risk that are at least as effective must be adopted.
PPE at Work Regulations 1992: “… or adequately controlled by other means”
Until the ‘5 tests’ are met, risks should be controlled by maintaining the same maximum group size of 15 as now
If PPE isn’t going to be provided to all – or thought to be a workable solution in a school environment - then what alternative means are schools going to follow that are at least as equally effective?
The NEU’s previous “Test 2” rightly called for “appropriate physical distancing and levels of social mixing in schools, as well as for appropriate PPE … locally negotiated at school-by-school and local authority level”.
With infection rates still high enough to cause concern, negotiated safe physical distancing and small fixed ‘bubbles’ of pupils to limit social mixing could provide that alternative - alongside reliable testing and protection for those at risk. But, from September, none of these will be in place under the new DfE guidance. The joint union guidance should be sharply exposing that failure – but it isn’t! That has to be corrected.
Up to now, DfE guidance had recommended social distancing and small ‘bubbles’ to minimise the risk of onward transmission, with group sizes not exceeding fifteen. Under the new guidance for September, the DfE are proposing full class sizes and ‘bubbles’ that are as large as a whole secondary school year group – in other words, hundreds of students mixing together. (Of course, friends meeting outside school, contacts on transport to school and at the school gates, and having siblings in different years, are further risks too).
Both the scientific advice – and some simple maths – shows that expanding ‘bubbles’ and class sizes in this way makes physical distancing within the confines of a classroom impossible and greatly increases the chance of an infected individual spreading transmission across the whole ‘bubble’.
The latest joint advice does not sufficiently challenge this risk. It suggests bubbles are kept ‘as small as possible’ – but proposes a maximum of one class in primary and KS3, and half a year group in KS4. But that is still agreeing that schools should double existing ‘bubble’ sizes – much more than that with KS4.
There is no mention of maximum class sizes in the joint union guidance – despite previous union guidance acknowledging that even class sizes of 15 did not really allow a physical distance of 2m between tables in most classrooms.
Until staff can be secure in the knowledge that infection rates are falling and test and trace procedures are in place to keep them that way – as set out in the NEU’s ‘5 tests’ - surely risks should be controlled by maintaining the same maximum group size of 15 as now? As stated above, that would mean schools would need to introduce more students only on a phased basis at first, maintaining ‘blended learning’ to also support teaching and learning.
What about the ‘5 Tests’ and functioning ‘Find, Test, Trace, Isolate, Support’?
The abandonment of the original NEU ‘5 tests’ in this new joint guidance must be reversed – and full support given to members jointly refusing to return to a workplace they believe poses a serious and imminent danger.
The NEU paid a lot of attention to the warnings and evidence being provided by Independent SAGE when it was recommending a wider opening of schools be delayed from 1 June. Unfortunately, the latest joint guidance suggests union officials are no longer giving that scientific advice the attention it deserves.
Independent SAGE have since produced a series of detailed reports criticising the ongoing failure in the privatised testing and tracing regime, the lack of integration and data sharing with local NHS services – so badly exposed in Leicester – and the withdrawal of support for those who have been shielding.
A serious weakness with the latest joint union guidance is that it fails to reflect that scientific concern and also no longer maintains the demands originally set out in the NEU's ‘5 tests’.
the DfE’s weak call for staff and students who have been in contact with a
pupil showing symptoms “to be reminded to wash or sanitise their hands”. But where
is the call for immediate testing of at least those contacts, if not the whole
school – in line with the NEU “Test 4” that called for “protocols to be put in
place to test a whole school or college when a case occurs”?
It asks reps to make sure schools are engaging with NHS Test & Trace process but says nothing about the fact that those processes are failing to function properly – so also failing to meet the NEU’s original “Test 1” that demanded these systems were all working reliably and extensively.
It asks if the school “will follow DFE advice on sending home anyone who have been in close contact with confirmed cases” but does not warn reps anything about the warnings from Independent SAGE about the risks arising in the mean time because of the length of time that test results are taking to be returned.
happened to NEU “Test 3” that would give staff, particularly those at risk, the
reassurance that some other employers are giving staff returning from lockdown of “comprehensive
access to regular testing”? Unions need to be loudly making that demand for regular workplace testing on behalf of their members in schools.
The new joint guidance asks vaguely about control measures to contain any outbreak but fails to insist that schools should be closed if an outbreak occurs. Unions should instead be challenging the DfE guidance for full opening that advises that “whole school closure based on cases within the school will not generally be necessary” and that there would need to be at least "two or more confirmed cases within 14 days" for them to even consider it a possible outbreak.
It asks for schools to carry out individual risk assessments for staff who are clinically extremely vulnerable, clinically vulnerable or at increased risk, or who live with them, but no longer insists on the previous NEU ‘Test 5” that “vulnerable staff, and staff who live with vulnerable people, must work from home, fulfilling their professional duties to the extent that is possible.”
Without making it clear, the new joint guidance abandons the previous ‘5 tests’ set by the Union, even though none of them have been met. That must be challenged by NEU members and the previous position reinstated – along with full support to members jointly refusing to return to a workplace if they reasonably believe that it poses a serious and imminent danger.