A request for clarity, transparency, fair warning – and support for our teachers

Following our letter to the Prime Minister setting out five areas we want the Government to address, Cat Scutt – our Director of Education and Research – expands on the issues raised.

As the professional body for the teaching profession, an organisation committed to evidence-based practice, it is natural for us to take the stance that ‘schools should only re-open more widely when research evidence suggests that it is safe for them to do so’.

However, we recognise that the decisions around reopening schools more widely are far from as simple as that. The research evidence available is limited, and sometimes contradictory. We recognise the decisions the government need to make are hugely difficult – and teachers and school leaders understand this, because they too are facing decisions every day about how best to support their pupils’ learning and how to support the communities they serve whilst also protecting their staff and stretching already over-stretched budgets.

But what this means it is critically important that there is transparency and honesty in the decisions that the government makes, and how they are communicated to the profession and the wider public. The teaching profession deserves unwavering trust, support, recognition and praise from the government – in public and behind closed doors.

That is why we have written this week to the Prime Minister, asking for clarity on key issues on behalf of the profession and requesting that teachers and school leaders, who are the experts on education, are valued and listened to alongside medical experts. We believe responses to these are key if school leaders and teachers are to support the government’s plans to reopen schools more widely – when it is safe, whenever that may be.

The areas around which we have asked for clarity are outlined below – as well as the reasons these have been our focus.

1: Detail on the scientific evidence-base for schools being reopened more widely

We recognise that the research on COVID-19 and how it infects, affects and is spread by children is still emerging, as is evidence around the role of school closures in controlling spread of the virus. Some research is contradictory (as is often the case with research!), and some simply just doesn’t exist yet, or (by necessity) only covers short periods of time in particular contexts. It is this absence of unequivocal evidence, as well as the number of cases, that has meant the BMA has lent support for the teaching unions’ position that schools should not reopen until case numbers are much lower: “The BMA’s Public Health Medical Committee has examined the evidence available on the reopening of schools and has found it to be thus far conflicting, which is perhaps unsurprising given the relatively small amount of research available and the unchartered territory we find ourselves in… Until we have got case numbers much lower, we should not consider reopening schools… We cannot risk a second spike or take actions which would increase the spread of this virus, particularly as we see sustained rates of infection across the UK”. This concern about the high number of cases and the lack of a full testing, tracking and tracing mechanism has also been highlighted by other scientific experts in recent days as a reason that reopening schools is still currently too high-risk.

Even once these high numbers of cases have reduced, if the teaching profession and the public more widely are to have faith in the government’s decision-making process, the research that is being used to inform decision-making needs to be made available on an ongoing basis. The publication of the overview of scientific advice the Department for Education has received was a positive step here, but it lacks references and details of the studies used to inform the advice within. This undermines confidence in the decisions that are being made and the assurances that opening schools more widely will be safe. Updates will also be needed as more research evidence is published, as well as explanation of how these updates are informing ongoing decision-making.

2: Clarity over the risk and purpose of reopening schools more widely before the summer

There is inevitably some level of risk to health of pupils, teachers and their families in reopening schools more widely. Even if, as the government suggests, this risk is relatively low, this will still almost certainly mean some individuals being affected, and some of these seriously. When these individuals are not just statistics but are your family, your friends, your community members, your view on things begins to change, and this is the situation in which teachers and school leaders will find themselves.

If the government is asking the teaching profession to take this risk, it needs to be absolutely clear and honest about the risk and purpose of reopening schools more widely at this stage, and about the trade-off for the risk. We all recognise the impact that school closures may have on our most disadvantaged pupils in particular, something reflected clearly in interim analysis of responses to our recent survey of members, and we are hearing of teachers and school leaders being kept awake at night with worry for what this will mean for those they support. However, it is not clear how reopening schools to selected year groups is the most effective way to prevent the disadvantage gap from widening still further.

The education that it is possible to provide for very young children, in smaller classes, while maintaining any form of social distance is unlikely to be anything like the high-quality teaching and learning that makes a difference. As DfE guidance highlights, it is also likely to mean that schools are not able to continue providing the same distance learning for those not in school as they have been so far. Whilst teachers appreciate the support of initiatives such as Oak National Academy, these do not replace the need for high-quality support from teachers who know their pupils well as individuals, so the quality of education for those pupils – including disadvantaged pupils – in year groups not attending school may actually worsen. As Laura McInerney has suggested recently in an article for the Guardian, an alternative approach may be to focus on supporting schools to provide the best possible distance learning for all pupils for the remainder of the term.

If, however, the decision to reopen for selected year groups is as much about the economy and enabling parents to return to work as it is about learning, this should stated openly. Not only is it only fair to be honest to our teachers, it will have implications for the approaches schools take to reopening and the forms of education that they deliver, both for those pupils who are in the classroom and for those who are still learning at home.

3: Clear guidance with sufficient notice for schools to make use of it

The decisions made by the government about school opening have huge ramifications for schools and those who work in them – and whilst the expertise and contextual knowledge of school leaders needs to be recognised and trusted, they also need clear and timely guidance. Given the inevitable risks to larger numbers of pupils returning to school that are discussed above, the decisions made around the approaches schools take may have serious consequences, and the government cannot divest themselves of responsibility for these. The way Stuart Lock, the chief executive at Advantage Schools, described this to Schools Week highlighted the issue particularly starkly: “I recognise that some of our disadvantaged pupils could be missing out on education, but we have to balance the risk – my biggest fear is making a decision that will cause someone whose wellbeing I have responsibility for to die.”

Interim analysis of our survey to members highlights that a lack of clarity and guidance has increased teachers’ anxiety and the pressure they feel under. Two of the NEU’s five tests for reopening schools also relate to this need for clear guidance and protocols: they require a national plan for social distancing, and a whole school strategy for when a case occurs.

The guidance that has been released so far has not always been clear, and it does not always seem consistent with guidelines more generally about responding to the virus. It has also, in some cases, shown a lack of understanding of the reality of schools and what is practical and feasible; something greater involvement of expertise from teachers and school leaders in decision-making and planning will help to counter.

Guidance has also often been released too late, meaning school leaders have begun to make plans which have then had to be changed, or that they do not have time to develop their approaches fully. Recognising the importance of longer lead-times is crucial – whether this is by releasing guidance earlier, or whether this involves delaying changes to the current system. School leaders also feel frustrated at often finding out the latest plans via leaks to the press, rather than being treated as professionals who deserve to be given information directly and as soon as it is possible to do so.

4: Valuing of the contribution of teaching staff and prioritisation of their health and wellbeing

The teaching profession has been doing an incredible job since the pandemic began.  Teachers have shifted to a new mode of teaching and embraced new ways of working to ensure they provide the best they can for their pupils, often spending their evenings and weekends planning new approaches and producing new content. They are delivering high-quality learning every day, in a range of formats depending on what is the most appropriate for their context and the access their pupils have to devices and broadband. They are supporting parents to deliver home learning, and they are calling and emailing to check on pupils and their families. Some are in school, supporting the children of key workers and the most vulnerable pupils. Alongside this, school leaders are supporting families to access food, planning for wider re-openings, and thinking about how they can address the gaps that will inevitably have arisen when children return fully.

Slurs from some sections of the media suggesting that teachers are lazy, or questioning unions’ motives for standing up for their members, fail to recognise the contribution that teachers are making and the pressures they are under. The government needs to ensure these narratives are robustly rebuffed. Teachers and school leaders would like to feel able to go back to what they do best and to support the pupils they are responsible for. However, they are rightly concerned to be asked to do this at the risk of their own health, that of their families, and of those very pupils they are concerned about. As Adam Boxer, a head of science put so passionately in his blog:

“I hope you believe me then, that you trust me when I say I want to go back to school. And I hope you’ll trust me – and this is the important bit – when I say that every teacher I know and have spoken to wants exactly the same thing. The emotions I feel are the same as any teacher’s. We are a madly driven profession, one wildly and chaotically in love with its work, one which feels the strongest pulls of vocation – of being called to labour…

The problem is, just because I want something, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do… The question of when to go back is answered by assessing whether or not it is safe. Safe for teachers, safe for non-teachers, safe for students, safe for the people the students live with and could carry a deadly virus to… isn’t it possible that the reason why unions and teachers are saying we shouldn’t go back isn’t because they don’t want to – as I’ve said, we want to go back to work – but because we don’t think it’s safe yet?”

Further, when schools do return more widely – whenever this is – teachers will need to know appropriate care will be taken with the health of all members of the school community. This includes the priorities highlighted in the NEU’s tests for schools reopening; appropriate PPE, comprehensive access to regular testing for children and staff, and protection for vulnerable staff and staff who live with vulnerable people.

Teachers will also need support in their roles – and they deserve to know now that this will be the case. As well as facing academic challenges when schools return, for example how best to support pupils who are still unable to attend in person because of shielding measures, teachers will also be expected – and can play a key role in – supporting pupils who have experienced bereavement or trauma. They will clearly need support and training in these areas. It’s also crucial to be mindful of the limits to what they can reasonably be expected to do, so the access to other specialist professionals that will be available is important, too, as is support for teachers’ own mental health, which may be affected by the support they are providing for pupils.

5: Ongoing, meaningful consultation with the teaching profession

A key way to ensure that teachers feel valued, trusted and listened to, and simultaneously to ensure that decisions made and guidance produced is practical and feasible in schools, is by maintaining ongoing, meaningful consultation with the teaching profession, trusting their professional expertise. The teaching unions and the Chartered College of Teaching are all regularly consulting our members and sharing their views; the government needs to take these seriously, and respond to them transparently.

Teachers and school leaders are, and always have been, committed to doing the best possible job for the children and young people they serve, and they need to be trusted to do so – both through remote teaching, and when it is safe for schools to reopen more widely.

However, to be able to do this, they must have adequate support from the government and clear guidance that they are consulted on and able to contribute to. That way, we can ensure we are all able to move forward together when it is safe to do so.