Coronavirus: Key messages from latest DfE guidance for schools

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
Image: Lucie Carlier

Government guidance published on Sunday (March 22) outlines how schools are expected to operate during the coronavirus pandemic. Former school leader Matt Bromley takes a look and offers his advice

On Friday, March 20, schools closed their doors to a majority of their pupils. Those doors are unlikely to reopen again for several months. Indeed, I would not anticipate schools returning to normal until September at the earliest.

The government’s decision to order this partial closure was taken on the advice of scientists who said that if children can stay at home safely then they should do so in order to limit the chance of the coronavirus spreading.

Who is attending?

Schools are asked to continue to provide care for a limited number of children – children who are vulnerable, those with Education, Health and Care Plans (ECHPs) and children whose parents are critical to the Covid-19 response and cannot be safely cared for at home.

Vulnerable children include pupils who are supported by social care, those with safeguarding and welfare needs, including child in need plans, on child protection plans, “looked after” children, and young carers.

Parents whose work is critical to the Covid-19 response include those who work in one of the following key sectors:

  • Health and social care.
  • Education and childcare.
  • Key public services.
  • Food and other necessary goods.
  • Public safety and national security.
  • Transport.
  • Utilities, communication and financial services.

For more, see SecEd’s coverage and the official government guidance (Cabinet Office/DfE, 2020).

A last resort

The government has repeatedly made it clear that even if one or both parents are a key worker but that they can, nevertheless, ensure their child is kept at home, then they should do so. Indeed, the default position for key workers should be to keep their children at home if they can. Schools are only available to them as a last resort.

However, the latest government advice, issued on Sunday, March 22 (DfE, 2020a), said that there is an expectation that vulnerable children who have a social worker will attend school, so long as it is safe for them to do so.

Where a parent/carer of a vulnerable child does not want to bring them to school, the social worker and schools should explore the reasons for this, directly with the parent, and help to resolve any concerns or difficulties wherever possible.

Where a parent/carer of a vulnerable child is concerned about the risk of their child contracting the virus, the school should talk through these anxieties with the parent following the advice set out by Public Health England (PHE/DfE, 2020).

On the matter of pupils with EHCPs attending school, the latest guidance has this to say: “Those with an EHCP should be risk-assessed by their school in consultation with the local authority and parents, to decide whether they need to continue to be offered a school place in order to meet their needs, or whether they can safely have their needs met at home. Many children and young people with EHCPs can safely remain at home.”

It is worth noting here that, while trying to minimise the number of pupils who attend school, headteachers can still be flexible. It is reasonable for schools and local authorities, the government says, to take a judgement on including pupils who have been referred to children’s social care but not yet appointed a social worker, although they should take care to balance this with overall numbers of pupils going to school in their local area.

However, the government cautions that “eligibility for free school meals should not, in and of itself, be a determining factor in assessing vulnerability”.

These, by way of summary, are the key principles that schools and parents have been asked to follow:

  • If it is at all possible for children to be at home, then they should be.
  • If a child needs specialist support, is vulnerable or has a parent who is a critical worker, then educational provision will be available for them.
  • Parents should not rely for childcare upon those who are advised to be in the stringent social distancing category such as grandparents, friends, or family members with underlying conditions.
  • Parents should also do everything they can to ensure children are not mixing socially in a way which can continue to spread the virus. They should observe the same social distancing principles as adults.
  • Residential special schools, boarding schools and special settings continue to care for children wherever possible. The government has issued separate guidance for these settings (DfE, 2020b).

Ten per cent attendance?

Some schools have, with the very best of motives, signalled their intention to offer places to any child whose parents want them to continue attending. This runs counter to the guidance and runs the risk of spreading the virus and endangering lives.

It has been suggested this week that a 10 per cent attendance rate is something schools should aim for. This figure has been put forward by both education secretary Gavin Williamson and Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union.

Dr Bousted explained: “The vast majority of children should stay at home. This is the safest place for them.

“Gavin Williamson has said that schools opening during the crisis should have no more than 10 per cent of their normal intake. We think this is the right percentage, because it will enable schools to implement social distancing strategies for children old enough to understand why this is important.

“If schools are to limit their intake during the crisis, school leaders and teachers must exercise their professional judgement. There may have to be some difficult conversations with parents including telling parents that the school cannot accommodate their children and remain safe.”

The NEU is also urging that children who have only one parent (as opposed to both parents) as a key worker should remain at home. It also recommends that staff who are in the high-risk categories or who are living with relatives in the high-risk categories should not go into school. Other staff should attend on a rota agreed between staff and head, the NEU advises.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has also issued a strong statement to key workers: “This is not business as usual. Keep your family at home if at all possible. Leave the few spaces available for those that truly have no alternative.”

The NAHT has also appealed to employers: “Please do not interpret the key workers lists liberally for your own ends. Do not put profit over people. School places are there for the most vulnerable and to keep truly crucial operations running.”

So, now is not the time for well-intentioned gestures which could expedite the spread of the coronavirus. Schools need to take a firm line and only open their doors for the pupils who have absolutely no alternative or for whom staying at home could put them in harm’s way.

Does this mean all schools will remain open and fully staffed? No. The government has made clear that schools are being asked to remain open only where they can.

The government understands that some may be unable to do so, especially if they are experiencing severe staff shortages.

The government says it will work with local authorities and Regional Schools’ Commissioners to use neighbouring schools to continue to support vulnerable children and children of critical workers. In the latest DfE guidance (DfE, 2020a), academy schools – who are ordinarily free of local authority control – are specifically directed to work with local authorities to coordinate local provision.

In the coming weeks, it is likely we will see an increasing number of schools close in a coordinated effort to reduce the risk of the virus spreading, and that there will be “hubs” open to pupils from several neighbouring schools, staffed by colleagues from different schools on a rota.

Rules will be relaxed to ensure staff can work in different settings and that staff in schools which close can support those schools with high demand.

Other considerations

The latest guidance (DfE, 2020a) includes and confirms the situation across a range of other areas:

Register: An attendance register is not required during this period, but the DfE would like schools to submit a short daily return to help with the monitoring of capacity in the system. Guidance has been published (DfE, 2020c).

Operating hours: The guidance states: “We expect schools to operate as close as possible to their normal hours. Where possible, we would encourage breakfast club and after school provision to help support the children of workers critical to the COVID-19 response.”

Legal duties: The DfE is “preparing legislation that will temporarily disapply or modify some requirements on schools” to support them. The guidance states that “schools should focus on safeguarding duties as a priority”. Emergency legislation will also lift curriculum requirements for schools, “giving flexibility to provide support, activities and education in the way they see fit”.

Exams: The government has also announced that primary assessments, including SATs, and exams including GCSEs, AS levels and A levels will not go ahead this summer (DfE, 2020d). The exam regulator, Ofqual, and exam boards will work with teachers to provide “calculated grades” to pupils whose exams have been cancelled this summer. The calculated grade process will consider a range of evidence including, for example, non-exam assessment and mock results, and the approach will be standardised between schools. Pupils who do not feel their calculated grade reflects their performance will have the opportunity to sit an exam, as soon as is reasonably possible after schools and colleges open again.

Free school meals: The government has also announced that pupils who receive a free school meal will be provided with an alternative to ensure they continue to get access to a free meal while at home (DfE, 2020e). Headteachers can decide which of the available options will be best for families in their area. The options are: schools can provide food on site, schools can arrange deliveries, or schools can purchase a voucher to be given to the family. It may be a consideration when thinking of how we staff our schools in the weeks and months ahead. Do we continue to use our catering teams to provide meals for pupils in school and to be delivered to FSM pupils at home? Or do we close our kitchens to reduce staffing levels and improve hygiene, and therefore lower the risk of spreading the virus, and use external food suppliers for all pupils who we have a duty to feed?

  • Matt Bromley is an education journalist and author with 20 years’ experience in teaching and leadership. He works as a consultant, speaker, and trainer. Visit www.bromleyeducation.co.uk and for Matt’s archive of best practice articles for SecEd, visit http://bit.ly/1Uobmsl

Further information & resources/research

  • Cabinet Office/DfE: Guidance for schools, colleges and local authorities on maintaining educational provision (including key workers list), March 19, 2020: https://bit.ly/2UnaqMl
  • DfE: Guidance for schools about temporarily closing, March 22, 2020a: https://bit.ly/39ehTma
  • DfE: Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance on isolation for residential educational settings, March 21, 2020b: https://bit.ly/3bhCUxU
  • DfE: Coronavirus (COVID-19): Attendance recording for educational settings, March 22, 2020c: https://bit.ly/39bHE6I
  • DfE: Further details on exams and grades announced, March 20, 2020d: https://bit.ly/2UahtsX
  • DfE: COVID-19: Free school meals guidance, March 19, 2020e: https://bit.ly/2U48ARF
  • PHE/DfE: COVID-19: guidance for educational settings, February 17, 2020: https://bit.ly/2QDXssB
  • SecEd: Coronavirus: ‘Every child who can be safely cared for at home should be’, March 20, 2020: https://bit.ly/2UeaC1D


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