Coronavirus: Worried, afraid, but our teaching heroes are not shirking from their public service duty

Written by: Paul Whiteman | Published:
Unsettling times: Paul Whiteman, general secretary, National Association of Head Teachers

We are worried, we are afraid – but we are not shirking from our public service duty. Paul Whiteman praises our heroic school staff for their response in face of the coronavirus outbreak and outlines the further action and support that school leaders want to see from the government

These are very strange and unsettling times for schools and the people who learn and work in them.

In very short order we have established an identifiable routine where schools are closed to the vast majority of pupils but still available to provide support and childcare for vulnerable young people and the children of key workers.

In order to pull this off, school leaders and their teams have shown almost infinite reserves of resourcefulness to patch together local solutions. At the same time, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has been in dialogue with the Department for Education (DfE) and supporting our members directly to help schools make the government’s expectations deliverable.

This has been extremely challenging for everyone. I know that government officials are very grateful for the way that the profession has stepped up in the face of the coronavirus crisis.

I am pleased that unions have been central to finding solutions to the crisis. By acting collectively and organising ourselves effectively, we have moved mountains in mere moments.

I am inordinately proud of the effort that has been made by school leaders and their teams. The nation owes them a massive vote of thanks. If you look at social media you will see a huge outpouring of gratitude for teachers, leaders and other school staff.

It appears that the vast majority of families have responded to our appeal not to send their children to school, and we thank them for that.

On Monday of this week (March 23) we conducted a snapshot survey of members. More than 3,350 responses revealed that 94 per cent of schools have been providing emergency cover and that overwhelmingly they had fewer than 20 per cent of their usual children attending.

School staff are playing a leading role in the fight against coronavirus and it is right that the government should provide them with the expert medical advice, practical guidance and resources needed to keep themselves and children safe.

Our view is that current government guidance to schools remains inadequate and we know our members need clearer and more specific advice on how to keep pupils and staff safe, and that they need it urgently.

We also know that our members want urgent information relating to the role of personal protective equipment (PPE) in schools. Safety is our number one priority in all our conversations with the government.

Local authority teams have been tasked with getting supplies of soap and handwash to schools. We have been told by Public Health England (PHE) that soap and handwash is more effective than hand sanitiser.

People are understandably worried about whether they should be in school if they live with anyone who is classed as vulnerable. Our view is that they should not. Where a member of staff is in this position, it would be a reasonable request to ask them to work from home. This is in line with the position taken by the National Education Union (NEU).

It remains the case that if a school does not have enough staff to care for pupils safely (even based on the new reduced provision approach) then, subject to a risk assessment and consultation with the chair of governors, a full or partial closure may be necessary.

Schools will need to keep this decision under daily review and should inform their local authority if they are not able to open. The government has said that if individual schools have to close, it will work with local areas to use neighbouring schools, colleges and childcare providers to continue to support vulnerable children and children of critical workers.

While it may not be uppermost in everyone’s minds, we know that the Covid-19 outbreak has increased costs for schools. The government has now stated that it recognises these additional costs and that there will be a system to reimburse schools.

As I said above, these are unprecedented times for the country as a whole and schools in particular.

This crisis has tested the mettle of everyone in education. What has been striking and inspiring from my point of view is how the very worst situation imaginable has brought out the best in so many people. I will certainly have that uppermost in my mind during the challenging days that no doubt still lie ahead.

Right now, education is full of people who are trying to be more like the people they wanted to be when they were called into public service in the first place.

In doing so, they are suppressing their inner fears, while projecting outward calm. That is hard work – and though we might be losing sleep over it, no one is shirking it.

And know this – there is an education community around you that will look out for you, and the NAHT has got your back.

  • Paul Whiteman is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.

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