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New union checklist and government U-turn on lateral flow testing as an alternative to self-isolation

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A message from NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman to members

New union checklist 

You may be aware that yesterday a number of teaching and support staff unions published a supplementary checklist for their members. The design of the document is to complement a similar checklist published last year. 

I am disappointed that our trade union colleagues have chosen not to engage with us because we share many of the concerns outlined. The approach has unfairly transferred the government’s failure onto the shoulders of school leaders and fellow trade unionists who are trying to do their best in the most extreme circumstances. 

As with previous versions, there are a number of helpful points raised that schools will consider as part of their ongoing, dynamic risk assessments. Furthermore, there is much in the checklist that we would agree with. 

However, there are some specific points that we know are already causing significant challenges for our members. Most notably is the suggestion that “schools should limit the number of staff and pupils on-site, with a maximum of 15% of normal whole school student capacity in attendance on any given day.” 

As you know, we very much share concerns about the high number of pupils on-site in some schools. Since the beginning of the term, we have been demanding that the government and its scientific advisors clarify what they believe is a safe upper limit. 

In the meantime, NAHT does not support establishing an arbitrary figure like that adopted by other unions. This is not only because we feel such decisions must be made by those with expertise in public health but also because NAHT is concerned the figure will remove your ability to make the judgements that support your circumstances. This could place individual leaders in an invidious position with the government and communities they serve. 

We need to point out that the checklist items, including the 15% figure quoted, are not binding on schools or school leaders. The checklist represents advice to members of the unions listed. It is not guidance that schools are obliged to follow. 

While schools should continue to engage with all their staff fully, and union representatives when it comes to risk assessments, they are not under any obligation to demonstrate they have met all the items outlined in the checklist. Your responsibilities are to discharge your duties appropriately, and you can find NAHT’s advice to leaders here

Ultimately, the checklist is for the members of those unions to use, and individual members of staff will make their decisions about what they choose to do as a result of that. We will continue to support and advise our members based on the individual circumstances they face in their school. 

We are disappointed to hear that, in some cases, people are using the checklist to exert pressure on individual school leaders who are trying to identify solutions to the problems in the face of the government’s failure. This situation is not the making of a local leadership decision or policy. School leaders are under enormous pressure, and they only have access to the same guidance and information from the government that everyone else in schools has. 

NAHT will continue to pursue the government’s failures, but we will do so in a way that seeks to reduce your individual risk as a school leader to criticism from the public or legal action by the government. And we will do this while helping you to discharge your responsibilities to the whole school community successfully.   

I have contacted trade union colleagues to reinvigorate out joint efforts, and I will update members accordingly. 

Government U-turn on lateral flow testing as an alternative to self-isolation 

This morning, we have seen the government announce it will be stopping the use of daily lateral flow tests in secondary schools as an alternative to self-isolation.

 The first thing to say is that we think this is the correct decision. You will know that we were calling for this last week as soon as it emerged that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) had not given regulatory approval for the tests to be used in this way. 

However, we should never have been in this position. It is very hard to welcome a sudden U-turn on the back of repeated governmental rebuttals and denials over the weekend, not to mention the hours spent working through the now redundant government’s guidance. 

Furthermore, while the government might be suggesting it has received ‘new’ advice on this, there are now very serious questions to be answered about why this was a policy it pursued in the first place, given what we now know. Those secondary schools who may have already begun to implement the plans also deserve urgent answers. 

Sadly, the obfuscation we have seen from the government on this issue since last week will only damage the relationship between the government and the education profession further. 

First published 20 January 2021