Coronavirus: Fears dominate ASCL annual conference

Written by: Chris Parr | Published:
Coronavirus concern: The on-going COVID-19 crisis did not deter around 1,000 delegates from attending the ASCL annual conference in Birmingham on Friday and Saturday (image: Osborne Photography)

The deepening coronavirus crisis dominated the discussions at the Association of School and College Leaders' annual conference this week. Chris Parr was there...

It was on the day that Ireland joined Italy, Denmark and France in closing down all of its schools that around 1,000 school leaders from across the UK convened for the 2020 annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

Whether it was sensible to bring together so many colleagues for this staple of the education calendar, before despatching them all back to their respective schools, was, unsurprisingly, a hot topic of conversation among those in Birmingham’s International Convention Centre.

In this context, the decision of the National Education Union (NEU) to cancel its own annual conference, scheduled for early April, certainly raised a few eyebrows.

“We are obviously conscious of the situation regarding coronavirus and have been following government updates carefully, with no restriction currently on public events," said ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton during the build-up to the event, which took place on Friday and Saturday (March 13 and 14).

And coronavirus certainly did not deter ASCL’s members, with the auditorium packed out when education secretary Gavin Williamson took to the stage.

Indeed, so full was the event that during the lunch break, the school leaders present outnumbered the seats available. Pointedly, though, large parts of the buffet laid on for delegates remained untouched – plates of communal garlic bread and biscuits were regarded with no shortage of suspicion.

Mr Barton told SecEd that he had thought “very carefully about the situation” regarding coronavirus and had “closely monitored guidance from the government and Public Health England”.

He continued: “We were reassured by the fact that there was no restriction placed upon public events and we made the decision to go ahead on this basis,” he said. “We have worked closely with the venue to encourage delegates and other visitors to maintain good hand, respiratory and personal hygiene during the event, as well as supplying suitable amounts of hand cleaning equipment.”

It was on the opening day of the ASCL event that the NEU announced it would be cancelling its conference, which had been planned for April 6 to 9 in Bournemouth.

Dr Mary Bousted, the NEU’s joint general secretary, said: "Due to the nature of the conference environment, more than 1,500 delegates and guests from across the UK and further afield, in close quarters in an enclosed building for more than four days could create an elevated risk for a coronavirus-spreading event. In turn this could have led to many education workers becoming ill or having to self-isolate.

"Although this was a difficult decision to take, we hope by acting sooner rather than later the union will alleviate the concerns of delegates and their families."

Back at ASCL’s conference, coronavirus certainly dominated the discussions with both the education secretary and the Ofsted session being overshadowed by the pandemic.

Ofsted’s national director for education Sean Harford told delegates that they were “monitoring the situation day-by-day” and pointed to Ofsted’s new deferrals policy for inspections, published last week.

He added: “This means we can defer the inspection of any school or college that’s affected by the virus – and we will. We will be proactively asking schools and colleges if they want to request a deferral because of coronavirus, and clearly we will look very favourably on all such requests.

“In fact, the chief inspector has asked to be personally involved in any decision not to defer in these circumstances. I also expect further measures to be taken by government in the coming days and weeks, and we will continue to work with them.”

Open for business: Education secretary Gavin Williamson addresses the ASCL annual conference on Friday, March 13 (Osborne Photography)

For his part, Mr Williamson opened his speech with reference to the on-going outbreak, pointing out there were “almost 600 cases of the coronavirus” diagnosed in the UK. Just a few days later, this figure has risen to more than 1,500 cases with at least 35 deaths (as Monday afternoon, March 16).

“I know that all of you will be anxious about what the outbreak means for you, your schools, your colleges, but also your wider communities,” he told delegates.

He urged school leaders to follow the guidance from the Department for Education (DfE), Public Health England and the Foreign Office.

“At present, we are clear that the best course of action is to keep schools open unless you are advised to close by Public Health England,” Mr Williamson continued. “The Chief Medical Officer has said the impact of closing schools on children’s education will be substantial, but the benefit to public health would not be.”

The reasons for remaining open were not entirely related to education, he added. “The government is particularly mindful of the strain on public services like the NHS that would be caused by key workers having to stay home to look after their children as a result of school closures,” he said.

“We will be constantly reassessing this position based on what the Chief Medical Officer and the government Chief Scientific Adviser tell us about whether the evidence would require us to close schools in the best interests of children and the best interests of teachers.”

Mr Williamson also stressed that there was “currently no need to cancel any domestic school trips or visits”, although thorough risk assessments should be developed” – particularly with regard to processes to follow if anyone develops symptoms of the virus.

The government has, however, advised all schools and colleges against overseas trips for under-18s (see further information).

It comes as the DfE met today (Monday, March 16) with education leadership unions to discuss the coronavirus emergency.

In a joint statement released after the meeting, Mr Barton and his counterpart at the National Association of Head Teachers Paul Whiteman said: “We have had a very productive meeting with the secretary of state this afternoon, discussing the implications of the coronavirus emergency for schools and colleges. This is clearly a very difficult situation and a very challenging scenario for school leaders, and the government is well aware of our concerns.

“We will continue working with the government to identify and tackle a number of issues for schools and colleges arising from the coronavirus emergency. We expect to hold further talks with the secretary of state and his officials later this week.

“The most immediately pressing challenge is the difficulty in keeping schools open with growing numbers of staff having to self-isolate. It is likely that a number of schools will have to close because there are too few staff available to teach, support and supervise children.

“We are concerned about the implications for pupils with SEND as well as children who receive free school meals if a school is closed or they have to self-isolate, and similarly, the wellbeing of vulnerable young people where there are identified safeguarding risks. There is also the crucial question of SATs, GCSE and A-level exams which are scheduled in May and June.

“We must move quickly to provide clarity and address the obvious anxiety for pupils, families and staff about what may or may not happen, and what contingencies are in place to deal with the inevitable disruption.

“We have also asked today that routine Ofsted inspections and school performance tables are suspended this year to allow schools and colleges to focus on the national mission of coping with this unprecedented situation.”

The issue of examinations was also raised during Mr Williamson’s address to the ASCL annual conference. He insisted that his department was “doing everything to make sure that this year’s exams are fair for students, and that their efforts will be fairly rewarded”. There are concerns that if some schools are able to hold examinations while other are not, it could lead to GCSE and A level questions being circulated to pupils who are yet to be tested.

Mr Williamson’s comments came after ASCL general secretary, Geoff Barton, had called for greater clarity on the possible impact of the coronavirus outbreak on exam timetables.

“Young people are safest and are best served by focus on the routines, the rhythms of learning," he said.

Speaking to the media following his address, the education secretary said the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic was based on the “very best medical and scientific advice”.

“The integrity of the exam system is absolutely vital,” Mr Williamson added. “We've already started work with the exam boards, through Ofqual, in terms of making sure that we continue to have that integrity and high standards in terms of the security of those exams.”

If changes did need to be made, “they'll be communicated early so that teachers and, most importantly, students are in the best possible place to be able to succeed and excel in these exams”, the secretary of state said.


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