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Our response to the government’s plans for the ‘full re-opening’ of schools

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You will no doubt have seen that earlier this afternoon the prime minister spoke in parliament about the government’s plans for the ‘full re-opening’ of schools.

In the statement, he confirmed that it will not be possible to increase the number of pupils attending schools immediately after the February half-term.   

Instead, he indicated that the earliest the government believes it will be safe to begin to increase pupil numbers will be from Monday 8 March.

While there remain too many unknowns to be able to say with certainty that schools will begin to bring back more groups of pupils on that date, this statement does at least provide a degree of clarity as to the government’s position, at least in the short-term.

NAHT’s view remains that the government should not become overly fixated on arbitrary dates, but should instead focus on having clear criteria for when it is safe to begin to increase numbers.

What is somewhat different on this occasion is that the government has given the profession some notice of its plans. We have also had indications that the government is prepared to engage with us further in the coming weeks about how a safe return to school can be managed. Should the government stay true to its word on this, we will of course be ready to work with them. All of us want to see all pupils back in school as soon as it is safe to do so.

There is much that we think the government should be doing in the weeks that will now follow. We believe that now is the time to put a plan in place for vaccinating all education staff as soon as the current ‘phase one’ is complete. We will also be calling on the government to fully review the safety measures currently recommended in their guidance in light of the new circumstances we face.

I know there will be a wide range of questions about today’s announcement, particularly regarding some of the other matters the prime minister discussed in relation to schools. We hope to learn more about these in the coming days and will of course keep you fully updated.

I also want to reassure members that we will not lose sight of the current, very pressing issues we are currently focusing on. We know that there remain immediate and significant issues still in special schools, APs and nurseries. There are of course other issues relating to the critical worker list and remote learning expectations that also remain high priorities for us too. Our guidance and FAQs remain available to members on our website.

February half-term

As you will know from our previous emails, since late December, NAHT has been lobbying the government to provide clarity regarding February half-term.

Our position, informed by members, has been that schools should not be asked to remain open over February half-term for children of critical workers or vulnerable children. We have made the case that schools were not open in this way over Christmas, and there was no evidence of a demand for such provision from parents. Furthermore, we were very clear that school leaders have worked relentlessly since the start of the pandemic and it was not reasonable to ask them to keep schools open throughout half-term too.

Yesterday, the DfE confirmed that schools will not be asked to remain open over February half-term.

While it has taken longer than we would have liked for the government to confirm this, we are pleased that they listened and responded to the arguments being made. 

We will now continue to raise the issue of the role of schools in track and tracing. While the DfE has suggested that reduced numbers in schools this half-term should mean that contact tracing activity is reduced, we remain concerned about the expectations on schools. We will continue to argue that the government should be urgently exploring other options when it comes to track and tracing outside of term time.

Best wishes

Paul Whiteman

First published 27 January 2021