Government under fire for 'reprehensible' timing of coronavirus guidance for schools

  • Watch ITV News Political Reporter Shehab Khan explain the guidance

Teaching unions have criticised the government for the last-minute nature of its latest coronavirus guidance for schools in local lockdown areas - released just days before pupils are set to return to classrooms.

Their voices join those of education leaders and politicians, with the timing branded as "reprehensible" by some and others demanding more funding be put in place too.

The National Education Union (NEU) said the guidance should have been received "months ago," describing the nature of the decision making as "simply unacceptable".

  • What is the guidance?

The government has announced a “rota system” - limiting the number of pupils going to secondary schools at any one time - as a potential measure for local lockdown zones.

While teachers and students may need to wear face coverings in communal areas.

The aim, according to the Department for Education (DfE), is to reduce how many people students come into contact with - helping to break transmission chains by giving enough time for symptoms to become apparent.

If someone at a school tests positive for coronavirus their close contacts could be sent home to isolate for 14 days, the guidance said.

The document was published on Friday evening, just before the bank holiday weekend, with millions of pupils returning to class next week for autumn term.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson with year 11 pupils at Castle Rock school, Coalville Credit: Jack Hill/The Times/PA

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said the new government guidance should have been received "months ago".

Describing the immediate change in guidance as "simply unacceptable," she said the decision "is a key issue for schools" and they should have been consulted.

"As it stands currently there is still no clarity on what should happen in a school where there is an outbreak," she added

Ms Bousted said: "This does not build confidence in government’s competence to keep schools safe when it scores such an own goal.

"In the end, this advice is better than none at all. But only just."

Social distancing measures will be observed in schools when pupils return next week. Credit: PA

She also slammed the plan for a lack of "investment" saying it "leaves schools to go it alone" in the event an outbreak might require students to stay at home and switch to remote learning.

"Remote learning requires significant extra resources, both in IT provision for students without laptops and internet access, and more teachers – as those working in schools cannot manage a full teaching timetable and plan for remote learning at the same time."

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, branded the timing of the new guidance “reprehensible”.

He added: “We’ve been calling for the government to publish a Plan B for several weeks. Finally it is here, but another late night publication is fairly typical of what we’ve become used to.”

Face masks will only have to be worn by staff who cannot effectively social distance, however anyone who wishes to should be allowed. Credit: PA

While Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT – the Teachers’ Union, echoed calls for more funding so extra staff can be recruited if schools are affected by local lockdown measures.

"There must be a recognition that whilst children will be affected by local restrictions, so too will teachers and other staff in schools," he said.

"The government now needs to confirm that schools will have the additional resources they need to deliver an effective remote learning offer to all pupils as well as funding for additional staff".

Labour welcomed the “long overdue” guidance, but said the last-minute timing was "unfair" to head teachers and school leaders.

Schools are due to resume next week. Credit: PA

Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said the timing of the guidance “beggars belief”.

She added: “The government’s incompetence is insulting to the school leaders and teachers who have worked so hard over summer to prepare schools for children to return.”

Robert Halfon, Tory chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, said teachers had been given the “incredibly difficult” task of having just days to prepare for the return of their pupils.

While Julie McCulloch from the Association of School and College Leaders told ITV News the guidance was "very late" with the timing "not ideal".

The details of the latest guidance to schools:

The lengthy guidance said schools should base their plans on a four-tier system, and the extra measures for secondary schools should kick in at the second tier.

It said: “Schools should ideally operate a rota system that means pupils spend two weeks on-site followed by two weeks at home.

“However, schools can choose to operate a one-week rota (so, five days on-site, followed by nine days at home) if this is necessary for the effective delivery of the curriculum.”

A fogging machine, which can disinfect a whole classroom, is set up in a classroom at Ark Charter Academy in Portsmouth. Credit: Andrew Matthews/PA

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said any changes to school attendance “will only ever be an absolute last resort”.

He added: “However, it is important that both government and schools prepare for a worst case scenario, so this framework represents the sensible contingency planning any responsible government would put in place.”

The guidance added: “In all areas of national government intervention, at schools where students in year seven and above are educated, face coverings should be worn by adults and pupils when moving around the premises, outside of classrooms, such as in corridors and communal areas where social distancing cannot easily be maintained.”

The DfE said any suspected coronavirus cases will need to self-isolate and get tested.

It added: “If a case is confirmed, local public health officials will work with the school to take appropriate measures, including asking all members of a pupil’s bubble to isolate for 14 days and access remote education while other pupils continue attending.”

The guidance does not apply to primary school children, as scientific evidence indicates they “play a limited role in transmission”, it added.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson took part in a question and answer session during the conference Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

All schools remain open at tier one, while tiers three and four mean more stringent restrictions such as closures to all but pupils in vulnerable groups or children of key workers.

Earlier on Friday, England’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries commented on the issue of face masks for school pupils, saying: “The evidence on face coverings is not very strong in either direction.

“At the moment the evidence is pretty stable, but it can be very reassuring in those enclosed environments for children and for teachers as well, to know that people are taking precautions.”

She said the advice could change in the future.

The DfE also updated its guidance on music performances in schools, saying singing, wind and brass playing should not take place in choirs or ensembles without significant space, plenty of natural air flow for players and audiences and “strict social distancing and mitigation”.