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Flexibilities and moving forward following the prime minister's announcement

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A message from NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman to members


Yesterday, as was widely trailed, the prime minister announced that the government was moving ahead with its plans to increase the number of pupils attending school from next week.

Those of you who have read my email on Wednesday will be aware of our position on this.

Over the last few weeks, we have been working incredibly hard to get the government to accept that its original proposals were not workable and there would need to be flexibility at a local level. As a result of this work, the government now accepts that this flexibility will need to be in place. While most school leaders have planned to increase the number of pupils attending on Monday, it will be nothing like the numbers the government outlined a few weeks ago. For many schools, such an approach would have made meeting the safety advice provided by the Department for Education impossible.

We know from our recent poll that around 90% of members who voted plan to increase the number of pupils attending over the next two weeks, but crucially, 78% of them aim to make use of the obtained flexibilities. This means that some of you will not be expanding the number of pupils on Monday, and many of you will only be expanding to a smaller number of year groups than the government proposed only a few weeks ago.

We have also been working hard to gain clarity from both the government and its scientific advisors about what the scientific evidence says when it comes to schools. As a result, we have seen the government finally publish the documents that informed the SAGE meetings. We have also begun to develop a better picture of the level of risk that schools are likely to face. The letter I received from Dr Jenny Harries last week provided us with some assurances. However, as we all know, the science is still emerging, and so we will need to continue to engage with the experts as they learn more. We will not shy away from continuing to pose the difficult questions that need answers.

There will undoubtedly be further challenges ahead for all of us in the next couple of weeks. Not least of which will be the job of supporting pupils, staff and families who are understandably anxious. We shall need to show compassion and understanding — consensus and collaboration, rather than compulsion. As you face the difficult issues, remember NAHT's advice line (call 0300 30 30 333 and select option one) is here to help.

Many of you have questioned the activity of colleague trade unions. Although the responses to the crisis have varied, the shared objective of returning to school safely has never been in question. Where understandable anxiety has led to hostility towards NAHT members, I have raised this with the leaders of those unions. We will continue to issue advice and guidance to support you with the range of industrial relations issues that will arise over the coming weeks.

Our guidance and FAQs continue to be updated to respond to the questions you are asking us. Updates over the last week or so have included answers about liability, risk assessments and whether they should be shared as well as advice about responding to requests from other unions. You can find these updates by clicking on this link and scrolling down to the bottom of the document. I know that the issue of liability remains a crucial concern, and you can find our advice on this under the update posted on 20 May 2020.

You can be proud of the phenomenal effort and success you and your teams have achieved since the beginning of the pandemic. The government has made its public health decision that moves the country to the next phase. Your voice has ensured that essential flexibility can be used during that phase to keep schools as safe as possible. School leaders cannot assume personal responsibility for the public health decisions of the government. But we will speak out to protect you and your school communities if it becomes clear that the assertions of the government are flawed. 

We assure you that we will continue to support and protect you during this difficult time.

First published 29 May 2020