Coronavirus: Chaotic guidance has exhausted schools

Written by: Kevin Courtney | Published:
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The chaotic nature of the DfE’s guidance around coronavirus is exhausting schools and must be addressed if school’s are to re-open more fully in September, says Kevin Courtney

This period of lockdown has produced immense challenges for schools and colleges the length and breadth of the country. Heads, teachers, support and school staff have all played an incredible role in ensuring the children of key workers and those in a high-risk category have had a place in school.

For other children, home learning timetables and resources have been put into place with speed and efficiency.

No-one could have predicted or planned completely for such events. Schools have adapted and moved mountains to ensure the best possible outcomes for all their students.

What could have been better planned, though, is the wider opening of schools. Guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) has not been clear enough. It has been changed constantly with little or no notice, leaving heads confused and exhausted.

This cannot happen again

September, should there not be any change in circumstances, will see the fuller opening of schools and colleges. Planning to take into account the social distancing needed in classrooms and around the school, as well as washing facilities and PPE, will in themselves be a logistical nightmare and this time government must listen to the profession, to their concerns and their needs.

What we also need to plan for is what our education system itself will look like given the past months of lockdown and the potential for further disruption should a second spike of the virus occur in the autumn term.

Under these circumstances, the prime minister and the education secretary must see the necessity for a national education plan. It will not be good enough to have a piecemeal approach in which the responsibility for recovering education in September is left at the feet of school leaders.

Clearly this is not just a simple case of picking up from where we left off. In the absence of any suggestion of a clear plan for September, the National Education Union (NEU) has written to the prime minster outlining its 10-point-plan for education renewal. It is our proposal for a National Education Recovery Plan.

The plan meets the needs of all children and young people, and in particular those who suffer from disadvantage and deprivation. The plan seeks to address the sense of isolation that is being felt by many children through a summer holiday local offer. It focuses, also, on poor children and young people who need significant additional support so they can fulfil their potential both now and in their adult lives.

The plan requires major investment in education, akin to the investment made in the job recovery plan. We think this is absolutely necessary in order to prevent children and young people becoming casualties of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The £1 billion announced on Friday (June 19) is welcome – but amounts to £120 per-pupil averaged across all eight million children in our schools and so far there is nothing extra for early years or post-16 children.

Tutoring can be successful in lifting exam grades for an individual child but our exam system is still set up to ration these grades. Children need support on "recovery" not "catch-up".

The NEU welcomes the news that the government will provide a £120 million summer food fund to support children and families who are facing real crisis as the summer holiday approaches. This will take some worry away from schools, many of which have had major concerns about child hunger during lockdown.

In the fifth richest country in the world, it is not right that so many children face food insecurity, especially in a time of global health crisis.

It did however take a great deal of public pressure before government finally recognised the importance of ensuring that children do not go hungry during this unprecedented period.

The NEU congratulates footballer Marcus Rashford for the stand he has taken, but there should never have been any hesitation on the part of government. For too many children and young people hunger is an all too familiar part of their daily life. It is now time for government to act upon the need to end child poverty, not just for the period of a pandemic but permanently.

We must work together as a society to build back better after this crisis, ensuring that families facing food insecurity and poverty are offered the support they need to get back on their feet.

Provision of free school meals over the summer was second on the NEU's 10-point-plan for education. We look forward to working with others, including government, to achieve the remaining nine.

  • Kevin Courtney is the joint general secretary of the NEU.

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