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Update for special schools and alternative provision

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A message from NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman to members. 

I appreciate that you receive regular updates from NAHT as a part of our communication with all members, but today I wanted to provide a further update specifically to school leaders working in special schools and alternative provision (AP).

Special schools have faced some of the biggest challenges in maintaining the invaluable education and support you provide for the children and young people in your care. I have spoken to many of you about the different issues facing special schools and AP. Our advice team has been supporting many of our members throughout the pandemic.

Our overarching advice to members in special schools remains accessible here.

We know that, in line with our advice, many of you have been working with parents to reduce the number of pupils physically attending school at any one time. The latest national figures show that attendance in special schools currently stands at approximately 30% on average. However, we also know that this overall average hides some significant geographical variation. We also know this remains higher than the national average in mainstream primary schools (20%) and mainstream secondary schools (5%).

We will continue to support members who have taken action to reduce numbers in their schools according to their risk assessments. We will continue to push back on any attempts by the government to increase these numbers.

Our special school members have shared a wide range of very challenging issues, far too numerous to note in full. However, some of the main areas have included the following:

  • The government's aim of reducing community transmission while requiring special schools and AP to remain open to pupils
  • Wholly inadequate and inconsistent guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) for special schools and AP
  • The demand for places in school driven by a definition of 'vulnerable' that includes all pupil with EHC plans
  • Managing a safe level of on-site attendance while implementing and maintaining in-school control measures to reduce transmission
  • Concerns about proposed pupil and staff covid-19 testing
  • Remote learning, including the quality of technology available
  • Prioritising vaccination for staff in special schools.

The government's support for special schools and AP has been contradictory. It places leaders in an unenviable position, and in our meetings with DfE officials, we have been conveying the following points:

  • Settings recognise the need to continue supporting pupils face to face wherever possible if they are evidentially vulnerable. Schools are wholly committed to keeping their pupils, families, staff and wider community as safe as possible
  • However, the DfE's current guidance for special schools and AP is wholly inadequate in providing the confidence, trust and flexibilities that school leaders need to make the right, safe decisions for their settings
  • With many special schools and AP settings often drawing on geographically larger catchments, which links multiple communities together, and relying on other adults to transport pupils to their settings, the government's target to reduce community transmission risks being compromised. As a result, there remains a real danger of a further extension to lockdown measures
  • Implementing infection control measures is more difficult with pupils who are unable or unwilling to adhere to the rules – fewer pupils on-site, all at once, may help to improve the impact of such measures, and each setting's context will be unique
  • Risk assessments are difficult to undertake effectively without a functioning and practical testing system for pupils and staff. While many secondary special schools have set up testing arrangements already for their staff, we know that for a large number of pupils, this will not be appropriate
  • Pupils with EHC plans are not all automatically vulnerable; some may have a specific learning difficulty that could be supported remotely. In fact, many families are unhappy that the government's guidance infers such an inevitable link between EHC plans and vulnerability. Special schools and AP settings are best placed to work with families in deciding the best and safest way to support children and young people, and where appropriate, this may mean remote education and support for some of their pupils
  • The government's support for remote learning has failed to understand the quality and specification of technology required. For example, some of the laptops supplied by the DfE cannot cope with the sophisticated software required by many pupils with SEND
  • NAHT argues that once the first phase of vaccinations for the most vulnerable in society has been rolled out, education staff should be considered a priority for vaccination (particularly those working in specialist provision and the early years). This reflects the crucial role they play and the unique working environment school staff are operating in. 

I am disappointed that the government has not yet responded more positively to your genuine pressures. 

NAHT will continue challenging the government to provide the evidence underpinning its decisions regarding attendance at school. 

We will also continue to campaign for the government to make the right decisions and provide the necessary support to special schools and AP. 

Rest assured that as your union, we will do all we can to support you to continue making the best choices for your settings.

First published 27 January 2021