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Coronavirus guidance for school leaders


This guidance covers: 


Introduction and key links 

On Wednesday 18 March 2020, the secretary of state gave a statement in The House of Commons where he announced the ‘closure’ of all schools in England.

This guide is an immediate response to that announcement and builds on earlier guidance we have issued so far. We aim to add more information as we get it, but we have tried to share what we know so far and what the implications are likely to be to guide school leaders through this unimaginably difficult situation.

You should read any official advice from the government alongside this advice, and you should always turn to official government advice in the first instance.

Due to the rapidly moving nature of current events, this guidance could quickly become out of date. We will update it regularly and so advise members not to print or share via email; instead, you should always access it via our website.

As has always been the case, our overarching advice is to follow official guidance. The key sources of information are below.

You can find the government’s latest guidance here.

You can find guidance for those travelling or living overseas here.

You can find joint union advice from NAHT, NEU and ACSL here.

Public Health England (PHE) has put together a helpful Q&A resource here.

Public Health Wales has also produced guidance and resources here.

The DfE’s coronavirus helpline is available to answer questions relating to education and children’s social care. Staff, parents and pupils can contact this helpline on 0800 046 8687 from 8am to 6pm, Monday to Friday, and 10am to 4pm, Saturday and Sunday - if you work in a school, please have your unique reference number (URN or UK PRN) available when calling the hotline. Alternatively, you can email

See the Local Government Association’s dedicated coronavirus web page here.

The TES has also produced a helpful coronavirus guide for schools covering some of the more operational matters and the impact of the virus on schools as they approach the exam season.

ACAS has also produced coronavirus guidance here.

Update 22 March: On Sunday 22 March, the government published three new pieces of guidance:

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What we know so far

  • From Friday 20 March 2020, all schools, colleges and early years settings in England will be ‘closed’
  • However, the secretary of state has also said that schools will remain open for the children of key workers and vulnerable children
  • In addition, we know that all primary statutory assessment, accountability measures, formal exams and Ofsted inspections will be cancelled

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What this means for schools, colleges and early years providers

The government has indicated that, after this week, it is asking schools to open to provide care for children of key workers and vulnerable children. This is not a statutory requirement – schools are being asked to help as part of a national response.

This is a very different type of provision than schools usually provide; for these pupils, it will be about care, not education. This is about keeping children safe and allowing key workers (such as NHS staff) to go to work and care for the sick, or to keep food supply chains moving. All expectations regarding educational provision have been lifted. Schools that provide this care will be free to determine what the provision looks like and what they deem to be best for the pupils they are supporting.

Critically, it is schools that are responsible for offering places to pupils who may be eligible to attend this provision. This will require immediate action from the school to identify who is eligible and, in some cases, prioritise offers to families according to capacity, need and health advice from PHE (see below for further details).

The government has made it clear in its guidance regarding key workers: “Many parents working in these critical sectors may be able to ensure their child is kept at home. Every child who can be safely cared for at home should be.

This is an offer to parents and carers and there is no requirement for parents and carers to send their children to school if they do not need or wish to do so.

For vulnerable children, your child’s social worker will work with you to assess the best option for your child.”

Update 20.3.20: The government has now published a list of FAQs on this issue, which you can find here.

Can a school still decide they need to close?

It’s important to reiterate that school leaders will still need to make individual decisions about whether it is safe to open their school.

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.

Update 20.3.20: The government FAQs state: “We understand that some may be unable to do so especially if they are experiencing severe staff shortages. We will work with local areas to use neighbouring schools, colleges and childcare providers to continue to support vulnerable children and children of critical workers.”

Who are considered to be key workers?

The government has now published its list of ‘key workers’:

This list is exceptionally broad and poses significant challenges for schools. Schools may need to prioritise. The government’s questions and answers state that schools should try to make the offer where only one parent is a key worker. If at all possible, schools should try to do this.

In reality, schools may need to prioritise based on their capacity. Our advice remains, a school can only open in so far as it is safe to do so.

Update 22.3.20: The government’s guidance states: “If required, we recommend asking for simple evidence that the parent in question is a critical worker, such as confirmation from their employer on what their job is and how it is critical to the COVID-19 response.”

While the government has failed to provide schools with any information to support this, one approach where schools are in a position where they have to prioritise could be as follows:

  1. Pupils where either parent is a member of NHS frontline staff eg doctors and nurses
  2. Pupils who have a social worker or are known to the school to be extremely vulnerable
  3. Pupils where both parents are on the key worker list
  4. Pupils where one parent is on the key worker list

Ideally, schools will be able to accommodate all pupils in the above categories that would like a place, but it must be safe to do so.

In parallel, schools should review any pupils with an education, health and care plan (EHCP) to decide whether they should be offered a place.

Update 22.3.20: The guidance on vulnerable pupils states that not all pupils with an EHCP will necessarily need to be in school and that, based on a risk assessment, some will be able to stay at home safely. Further details can be found here.

It should be noted that the government has not provided its own guidance on prioritisation, the list above is an attempt to help schools managing a high demand for places.

Please note, the FAQs from government state: “Many parents working in these critical sectors may be able to ensure their child is kept at home. Every child who can be safely cared for at home should be.”

Who are considered to be vulnerable pupils?

Update 22.3.20: The government has now published guidance on vulnerable children and young people. This document can be found here

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What schools need to do now 

Our colleagues at ASCL have talked about this being a three-phase approach:

  1. The first week
  2. Easter holidays
  3. The summer term.

We agree that this might be a useful way to think about the next steps.

Schools have been put in a very difficult position by this announcement. There will be a very real sense of ‘managing the best we can’ until longer-term solutions can be found.

In the short-term, schools will want to remind parents that they are closed from 23 March 2020 onwards.

A sensible next step, to be taken immediately, would be to ask parents to inform the school if they believe they meet the key worker criteria and would like their child to be considered for a place in the ‘reduced provision’. Parents should be directed to the official government advice on this.

In parallel, schools will want to identify any pupils they judge to be ‘vulnerable’ and in need of a place. The government has suggested that this group will include those with a social worker and/or an EHCP. But our understanding is that schools have flexibility in how they identify these pupils, and there may be some who don’t have an EHCP or a social worker, but the school has identified them as highly vulnerable.

It may be that schools have to pro-actively reach out to the families of vulnerable pupils rather than wait for a response.

Schools can then use that information to offer places based on their capacity. This may mean schools have to prioritise according to need. Please see above for our suggestion on how schools might prioritise.

Schools will need to take account of both: a) the latest government scientific advice on the proportion of pupils that it is advisable to maintain direct support for in order to maintain efforts to delay the spread of the virus. This has been set by the government as a maximum of 20% of the school population (NAHT has sought urgent advice in terms of what this means for special schools and has been assured that guidance will be published very shortly) ; and b) the number of staff available to work. This may require schools to prioritise which pupils receive an offer, according to greatest need.

Update 22.3.20: We note that the 20% figure has not been included in the government’s latest guidance. Our understanding remains that the medical advice suggests that schools should try not to exceed the 20% figure. The Health Secretary has publicly referred to this figure when talking about school closures

Schools will want to be flexible, but they will have to manage who can access the offer.

This may mean that schools can’t provide this offer in full from Monday 23 March. They may need a few more days to organise this provision. Alternatively, schools may start by offering places to a smaller group where the need is most urgent, eg an A&E nurse or doctor, and expand it as quickly and safely as is possible.

You should stress to parents that school will close on Friday 20 March and that you will notify them when it will reopen to provide the reduced provision offer for certain pupils. The school should make clear that some families will receive an offer of a place to attend the school during this time of wider closure. You must clearly explain to all parents, whether they are key workers or not, that only families with an offer of a place should attend the school.

The key message is that schools are closed, but they are doing what they can to support families, given these unprecedented circumstances.

The Easter holidays:

The government’s FAQs state: “Where possible, we would encourage childcare providers, schools and colleges to continue to look after critical workers’ children and vulnerable children throughout the Easter holidays.” Please note: “where possible”.  

The key words here are ‘where possible’ and ‘encourage’. There is no sign this will be mandatory. The government is asking schools to continue to provide some form of provision over those two weeks for that same group of pupils as part of a national effort to support the NHS and keep vulnerable children safe.

Our understanding is that this does not necessarily have to be school staff; it could be run or supported by locally coordinated childcare teams, play leaders, sports leaders, etc if they are available to do this. Contact your local authority to see what plans they are making to coordinate this effort.

Of course, this raises a whole host of complex questions, such as the following: how will this affect pay? Can I direct staff to do this? We have put these and many more to the government (see below).

Clearly paying teaching assistants (TAs) who are willing to do this is the right thing to do, and we know schools will want to do that. We have made it clear that if schools are to pay staff to come in over the holidays, the costs of this will need to be covered. We have also made it clear that this will have a big impact on schools’ budgets. 

Update 22.3.20: The government has now stated: “We know that schools may face additional costs as a result of COVID-19. We will put in place a new process that allows us to reimburse schools for exceptional costs that they face as a result. For example, where schools are already issuing vouchers to pupils who are eligible for free school meals but cannot attend school and additional costs for schools that remain open through the Easter holidays.”

Beyond Easter:

Our understanding is that local authorities have been tasked with coordinating a long-term approach and will be working with schools to identify and design long-term solutions. This could involve different models of working and bringing groups of schools together where feasible.

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Special schools, alternative provision (AP) and residential settings 

Update 22.3.20: The government has now published updated guidance that refers to special schools, AP and residential settings. That can be accessed here.

Specific guidance on isolation for residential settings can be found here.

The government’s FAQs on special schools state: “We recognise that children and young people with special educational needs and disability (SEND) and their parents and carers are facing numerous challenges as a result of coronavirus. We are encouraging local authorities to keep open both residential special schools and residential specialist colleges wherever possible. In addition, we want to keep the majority of day special schools and colleges open, including moving staff into these settings to avoid closure.

Special schools, colleges and local authorities are advised to make case by case basis assessments of the health and safeguarding considerations of pupils and students on an education, health and care (EHC) plan. For some, they will be safer in an education provision. For others, they will be safer at home. We trust leaders and parents to make these decisions and will support them as required.”

This means that not all pupils with an EHCP will be in school.

We suggest that members in special schools contact their local authorities immediately for advice on how to manage this situation. Residential special schools should be a high and immediate priority for local authorities.

We know that many special schools are already running with much lower attendance than normal, so it may be possible for them to continue to do so next week.

Equally, we know many have already closed for health and safety reasons.

It is likely that special schools simply can’t take all pupils on 22 March 2020 if they can open at all. Special schools should contact parents now to ask who would like a place if they can offer it and then prioritise offers to the most vulnerable pupils when they reopen for those pupils. This may mean taking a phased approach and gradually increasing the numbers based on a dynamic risk assessment.

Once again, we reiterate that schools can only open, even on a partial basis, if it is safe to do so.

We are also very aware of the impact on pupil transport because many escorts are in the ‘vulnerable’ group. We have expressed the very significant impact of this to the government. In the meantime, you may wish to discuss with the parents any alternative arrangements that they may be able to put in place.

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Legal support from NAHT

NAHT will continue to provide advice and representation for members in connection with Regulatory, Employment and Criminal proceedings.

While most hearings are currently being postponed, time limits for submitting employment claims have not been modified and deadlines in connection with regulatory and criminal proceedings may still apply.

If members are notified that they are the subject of a regulatory or criminal investigation (or if members require advice on employment claims) they should contact without delay.

All professional conduct panel hearings have been postponed.

Education Workforce Council (Wales)

All fitness to practice hearings up until the end of May have been postponed - this is likely to be extended - deadlines for responses still apply.


GTCNI closed its offices on 18 March until further notice.

Employment tribunals (England Wales and Scotland)

All in-person employment tribunal hearings from 23 March have been postponed and converted to telephone case management hearings.

Industrial tribunals and fair employment tribunals in Northern Ireland

Cases are being dealt with on a weekly basis and parties will be contacted with arrangements. In person cases will probably be converted to telephone hearings.

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Frequently asked questions 

You can read our frequently asked questions for school leaders here

How we can help

If you’re an NAHT or NAHT Edge member and need further support, call our advice team on 0300 30 30 333 (select option one) – we’re here to support you.

If you would like to join NAHT or NAHT Edge, please call our membership team on 0300 30 30 333 (select option two) – we look forward to hearing from you.

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