IT IS now estimated that 39% of teachers and school leaders – as well as 51% of teaching assistants and other staff – are working on-site in open settings in the current lockdown.
And statistics from the Department of Education (DfE) have revealed that the rate of Covid-19 infection among school staff in England is noticeably higher than the rate in the general population, and higher (too) than it is for teachers.
One report has even suggested that rates for school staff could be three times higher in primary schools, and almost seven times higher in special schools, than they are in the general population.
There are also estimates that in the current lockdown, although government has said everyone should work from home where possible, 39% of teachers and school leaders and 51% of teaching assistants and other staff are working on-site in open settings.
Unison’s head of education Jon Richards said: ‘Unison has been telling the government for months that school staff are at a higher risk from the virus than others.
‘Our members are the ones who work closely in settings where children and young people struggle with social distancing. And we told the government that they needed extra protection at work.
‘With more pupils in schools than the last lockdown, there is more reason to take urgent action. And now the bald facts are out there, the government needs to take our recommendations seriously.’
Writing to the secretary of state for education, Unison says urgent action is needed. ‘The most vulnerable children should be in school,’ it notes, but ‘the wider definition of vulnerable has led to a massive increase in numbers attending special schools – and this is both putting support staff in those schools at risk and undermining the effects of reducing community transmission.’
Unison is calling for urgent additional measures for special schools. These include:
- the current list of who can be included as vulnerable learners or the offspring of a critical worker to be urgently reviewed. The recently issued DfE guidance to reduce numbers does not go far enough;
- updated guidance to be issued, stating that it will not be possible for every student with an education, health and care plan to attend their special school or an alternative setting, and instead further emphasising that schools should be the judges of who needs to attend;
- schools should carry out individual risk assessments of each pupil, with the emphasis on only attending the site where a pupil’s circumstances mean that it is genuinely not possible for them to be educated at home. If necessary, a rota system or part-time learning option may need to be planned in order to balance time in school for students with pandemic safety;
- IT provision – currently underway by the DfE – should be prioritised to special school and pupils at alternative provision settings, with any specialist adaptations needed to access learning made;
- vaccination policy is rightly directed towards saving lives – the increased risk now evident among support staff in special schools means that these staff should be prioritised in the second phase of rollout.
Meanwhile, Tory Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said he was ‘not able to exactly say’ when pupils will return to class. Primary and secondary schools remain closed, except to vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers.
The government has said reopening of schools would be prioritised when the ‘current’ lockdown restrictions are eased. Schools have been closed to most pupils so far this term, with primary schools closing after one day back in response to rising Covid levels.
Williamson was pressed on whether he could guarantee that schools would reopen at all this term, before the Easter holidays. ‘I want to see them, as soon as the scientific and health advice is there, open at the earliest possible stage,’ he said – ‘and I certainly hope that would be before Easter.’
He said schools and parents would have ‘absolutely proper notice’ of when children are going to return, which he said would be a ‘clear two weeks’ for teachers and families to get ready.
Commenting on the Education Secretary’s pledge that schools and colleges will have two weeks’ notice of any plan to open more widely, Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of teachers’ union the National Education Union (NEU), said: ‘After the chaos and confusion that government incompetence over school opening and closure has created, it is good that we now have an assurance from Gavin Williamson that school staff will be given two weeks’ notice before reopening.
‘The last thing that parents and children need, now, is a stop-start approach. We all want schools to be open, but they must be opened when it is safe to do so, and when the conditions are right to keep schools open sustainably.’
- Teachers are set to decide GCSE, AS and A-level grades in Wales after a system replacing end-of-year exams was axed. Education Minister Kirsty Williams said the pandemic had left her ‘no choice’ in scrapping the classroom assessments.
Grades determined by schools and colleges based on the work covered would be ‘simple and clear’, she said. Exams were cancelled in favour of assessments in November, but these were also ditched when schools were told to close until February half term.
Advice from the Design and Delivery Group of school and college leaders said grades should be based on ‘evidence of learning’. The approach is similar to the so-called ‘Centre Assessed Grades’ given to students in the summer of 2020 when the Covid-19 crisis affected end-of-year assessments.
The new measures include:
- Schools/colleges will be able to use evidence to determine the grades to be awarded to their learners, including coursework and mocks. The WJEC exam board will also offer a set of adapted past papers to enable schools to carry on assessing their pupils.
- Schools/colleges can access an assessment framework set by Qualifications Wales to help set grades and their plans will be quality assured by WJEC.
- Deadlines for coursework or ‘non-exam assessment’ are being removed and will not be moderated by WJEC.
- WJEC will publish guidance and oversee schools and colleges’ internal quality assurance processes and will have a role in quality assuring their implementation. Teachers and lecturers will be offered training so they are applied ‘consistently, equitably, and fairly’.
- The grades are then submitted to the WJEC who will not change them. Appeals about grades will go to a school or college.
- Learners in Year 12 will also be awarded a ‘Centre Determined’ grade but it won’t contribute to the final A level. It won’t apply to Year 10 unit assessments, but will apply if they are finishing a qualification.
Kirsty Williams said in November that end-of-year exams would be cancelled because the varying impact of Covid-19 on different schools and pupils meant it was not possible to ensure a level playing field. A new system based on a mix of assessments was put in place, drawn up by an advisory group made up of school and college leaders.
However, when it was announced schools and colleges would stay closed for most pupils until at least 29 January, and probably until after February half-term, the advisory group was asked to look again at how assessments should be carried out.
Williams said: ‘The worsening situation with the pandemic has meant we have no choice but to revisit our approach to ensure wellbeing and public confidence in our qualifications system.
‘The proposals we are announcing today puts trust in teachers’ and lecturers’ knowledge of their learners’ work, as well as their commitment to prioritise teaching and learning in the time available to support learners’ progression.’
She also said they were working with universities to see how they can ‘provide a bridge into courses’. WJEC chief executive Ian Morgan, said that after an ‘exceptional year’ there needs to be a different approach to assessment in 2021.