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An update on phased returns

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A message from NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman to members

With the prime minister’s assertion on Sunday that he believes the country will pass the “five tests” when reviewed on the 28 May came the confirmation that schools will be expected to widen access for pupils from 1 June.

It has become clear over the past week or so and was confirmed by the prime minister's recent briefings, that a much more realistic approach to widening access from the beginning of June is now being adopted.

NAHT has been making continuous representations that a “cliff-edge date” and a “one size fits all approach” is unsafe and cannot be delivered.   

NAHT’s position has been clear throughout: wider access to schools cannot be achieved until it is safe to do so and the judgement to return must be based on scientific advice. Of course, the science itself is controversial. It is still emerging and cannot yet provide definitive answers to every question we might have.

To get some clarity on behalf of members, I attended a meeting with the official scientific advisors and have followed up in writing to Dr Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer for England. Taking our information from exchanges in the heat of the media debate is, at best, unhelpful. I have therefore sought to obtain straight forward answers from politically independent scientific advisors.

It seems to me that the pertinent safety questions for schools can be narrowed down to three key issues: the risk to children, the risk to staff, and the risk to the wider community.

You are now able to read the reply I received from Dr Harries. With appropriate scientific caveats, Dr Harries seeks to reassure us that, based on their understanding of the scientific evidence, the risk to children is relatively low.

In my letter, I questioned statements made by senior government ministers and Dr Harries herself that the risk to the teaching profession is comparable to the risks of other workplaces. In her reply, Dr Harries concludes that “it is true to say that there is no indication currently that the school setting is a greater risk than other settings and a possible signal that it may be safer.” Regarding the wider public health risk, the government has concluded, contingent upon the “five tests”, that widening access to schools presents an acceptable adjustment in the context of a disease that is likely to be with us for some time.

However, all the above is contingent upon the “hierarchies of control” set out in the DfE guidance being applied successfully.  

NAHT’s National Executive Committee has therefore adopted the position that the flexibilities now being supported by the force of government pronouncements should be utilised by school leaders.

Put simply, schools should continue to plan to begin to widen access to pupils in year R, 1 and 6 from 1 June. However, the ability to do so safely will be determined by local circumstances. For example, it may be that you are following the stance of a local authority or trust and will begin later. Or your circumstances may necessitate that you adopt a more restricted approach with a more limited number of year groups for a period in order that you can maintain the viability of the controls advised by the DfE. You should now make such decisions with the confidence that government policy is supportive of your judgements in this respect.

NAHT’s position remains that planning a return is not the same as implementing one and we shall watch closely the review from the government of the “five tests”, and the availability of a reliable track and trace mechanism . However, we shall not know about this until 48 hours before a return. We will communicate with members again following the government announcements on Thursday.

We will continue to issue further practical guidance throughout the rest of this week and we will be hosting another members’ broadcast this evening. The broadcast will feature a legal and practical narrative regarding risk assessment, and Dr Matt Butler will also offer medical perspective.

Over the last two months, we have received a high number of emails from members. In truth, we have probably received more emails since March than we normally receive over an entire 12-month period. In addition, we have carried out a series of surveys to canvas the views of our members. The engagement with these has been phenomenal and far in excess of the normal level we expect to see. We are grateful for the level of sustained member engagement. 

One thing has become very clear, we all have very strong views about the current situation and the government’s handling of it. No-one is indifferent. That is, of course, only to be expected. This is the gravest crisis we have faced in generations. Everyone has been touched by it.

I’ve been pleased to discover that the vast majority of NAHT members have been supportive of the position we have articulated over the last eight weeks. However, I am not naive enough to expect that everyone will agree with it. We have had some emails suggesting that as an organisation NAHT is being obstructive, and we have had others suggesting that NAHT is being too cooperative in approach. 

NAHT's position in this crisis has never been to oppose or endorse the government’s efforts. I hope that we have provided an authentic, democratic representation of your voice that the government has found persuasive in accepting that local flexibility is needed, but that local school leaders cannot assume personal responsibility for the public health decisions of the government.

You are assured of our continued support and protection during this difficult time.

First published 27 May 2020