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An update for members in special schools

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A message from NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman to members.

Today I wanted to write directly to our members working in and leading special schools.

I know that the government’s announcement last week put you in a particularly invidious position. The suggestion that special schools with secondary aged pupils would not have a staggered return in January but would still be asked to roll out lateral flow testing for pupils, has quite rightly generated a very strong reaction in the sector.

On far too many occasions this year the government has made special schools feel like an after-thought. They have consistently asked you to do more than anyone else, without any meaningful support or acknowledgement of the unique challenges you and your colleagues face.

I want to reassure you that NAHT is very much aware of the additional pressures on special schools, and that we are taking every opportunity to press the Department for Education to do more to address them. Over the last few months, we have been lobbying government on a range of specific issues our members in special schools have raised with us. These range from a call for better guidance on aerosol generating procedures, to financial support for schools having to deal with high levels of absence amongst support staff. We will continue to listen carefully to the feedback we receive from members in special schools and raise the specific issues they are facing with the DfE.

When it comes to the announcement last week, our joint union advice applies just as much to those working in special schools as it does to those in mainstream. We know that for many special schools it will simply not be possible to roll-out lateral flow testing whilst also welcoming pupils back at the start of the new term. Nor do we think it is reasonable to ask you to spend the holidays working on such a scheme.

We also know that given the invasive nature of the testing process, the specific special needs of certain pupils mean that such procedures would be inappropriate or impossible to undertake.

I want to reiterate that any school that is unable to implement the government’s latest ‘plan’ for the start of term will be fully supported by NAHT.

Given the news over the weekend, I know we will all be watching closely to see if there are further developments when it comes to schools and the return in January. Special schools will be at the forefront of our minds in any further conversations we have over the next few weeks.

Financial Support

A number of you have been in touch with us regarding the government’s latest financial reimbursement scheme for Coronavirus costs. As many of you have pointed out, special schools tend to have a much higher proportion of support staff than mainstream schools and are therefore are disproportionately affected by support staff absence. We have repeatedly made this point to government.

I therefore wanted to draw your attention to the latest updated guidance in relation to the coronavirus (COVID-19) workforce fund for schools and the clarification that we have received from the DfE regarding Special School / Alternative Provision (AP) and support staff costs.

The DfE has said that special schools and AP can claim for absences of educational and non-educational support staff in the same way that they can claim for teachers – in contrast to mainstream schools, where “Schools can claim for education and non-education support staff absences on an exceptional only basis”. 

The DfE notes that this intended to recognise the critical role which teaching assistants, learning support assistants, therapists and other non-teaching staff play in special schools and AP.  

NAHT would encourage all Special School/AP settings to claim for all roles that they believe to be necessary in maintaining critical provision for pupils.

Clearly, as before, the following criteria must be met prior to making a claim:

For special and alternative provision schools – including registered independent special schools and independent schools delivering alternative provision

Schools must be experiencing:


  • A total teacher and leader absence rate at or above 15% on a given day


  • A lower total teacher and leader absence rate of 10% or above but have been experiencing this for 15 or more consecutive school days.

Education and non-education support staff 

  • A total support staff absence rate (teaching assistants and other support staff) at or above 15% on a given day


  • A lower total support staff absence rate of 10% or above but have been experiencing this for 15 or more consecutive school days.

Claims can also be made on an exceptional basis, as per mainstream schools, where cover for support staff (below these thresholds) is necessary in remaining open to all pupils or fulfilling legal duties.

The full DfE guidance can be found here.

Of course, what is very clear is that the Coronavirus (COVID-19) workforce fund for schools remains wholly inadequate in covering the full exceptional costs that most schools have had to shoulder since the pandemic began. The thresholds and caveats around this scheme mean that a large proportion of schools still will not be able to make claims. NAHT believe this is unacceptable and will continue to argue this point and call for all schools to be fully reimbursed for their covid-related costs.

However, in the meantime, where schools do meet the existing criteria, we would urge them to submit a claim.

Please be reassured that this will not stop NAHT from continuing to campaign for government to fully fund all exceptional Covid-related costs for all schools and settings.

I hope that all of our members working in special schools are able to get the rest they so desperately deserve over the festive period.

First published 21 December 2020