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Update on some of the most crucial issues

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A message from NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman to members in England.

At the moment, it seems that barely a day can pass without another government announcement. With so much going on, I wanted to update you today on some of the most crucial issues.

Critical worker and vulnerable child provision

This remains the most pressing challenge for us all right now. Thank you to all of you who completed the survey at the end of last week. I hope you will have seen that we released the results yesterday and received a significant amount of media coverage on the issue. Our strategy at the moment is to argue the case privately with the government but also use our public voice to highlight the problems the current critical worker list is causing. Yesterday we shared the data we have with the Department for Education (DfE) to demonstrate the scale of the problem facing many schools.

We have called publicly for a change to the list. At the very least, we believe it should be made clear that, in most cases, pupils will only be eligible for a place where both parents are critical workers. We are also calling for the government to be clear about what its scientific advisors recommend when it comes to a limit on the number of pupils in school. In the absence of helpful guidance from the government, we have also published our own advice on the matter, which you can access here.

We know that many of you have also reviewed your risk assessments and decided to prohibit most external visitors at this time. We will continue to support schools who take this approach because we believe that school leaders are best placed to make such decisions.

As mentioned previously, we are particularly concerned about how this affects special schools and AP, with the government suggesting that all pupils are eligible for a place. Last week our SEND council held an emergency meeting to discuss our response. Since then, we have been lobbying the government on this issue and asking it to revisit the guidance so that leaders in special schools have the flexibility to make decisions based on the unique circumstances of their schools. We have been told to expect some updated guidance for special schools imminently, and so we will be looking closely to see if this addresses the issues we have been raising before considering the next steps.

Remote learning and Ofsted

The secretary of state’s announcements on remote learning and the role of Ofsted in ‘enforcing’ these last week were nothing short of disgraceful. Schools and school leaders worked tirelessly last week to put the necessary arrangements in place in their schools. To add to the burden and pressure was inexcusable. We have made that very clear to the government, and you can read our public response here.

Behind the scenes, we have been looking closely at the existing Ofsted complaints procedure. Our view is that there is a limit to what Ofsted can do here, and we have today published some advice on the matter that we hope will be helpful to members. You can read that here.

We will continue to challenge the government’s unhelpful, top-down approach to remote learning, which appears to be based more on media soundbites than understanding how best to support pupils remotely.

Free school meals

As soon as the announcement was made last Monday, many of you contacted us to ask about the Free School Meals (FSMs) situation. You were clear that you needed the flexibility to offer FSMs in a way that worked for you. We have been lobbying the government on that basis, and we are pleased to say it appears to have listened. The latest announcement is clear that if food parcels are not appropriate (and we know in many cases they won’t be), schools have the flexibility to use their own voucher scheme and claim back the money, or access a national vouchers scheme.

Nurseries and maintained nursery schools

Last week, we held a briefing for leaders in maintained nursery schools, which was also attended by some primary leaders who have nurseries. Members in maintained nursery schools should have received an email from us on Friday explaining the action we are taking. If you did not receive it, you can read it here.

When it comes to nurseries in primary schools, we have once again seen U-turns and conflicting messages from the government. On Monday last week, the government informed other organisations and us that school leaders would have flexibility in determining who would attend during the national lockdown. This was then seemingly reversed in the guidance on Thursday, which stated that all nurseries should remain fully open. We know this is causing major issues for many of our members, both in relation to the numbers of pupils attending and the funding implications if numbers are reduced. We have already written to the early years minister Vicky Ford to ask for urgent answers, and we are continuing to pursue this with DfE officials.

Vaccination

We continue to call for all education staff to be prioritised for vaccination once the most medically vulnerable have been given precedence. We are particularly stressing the need for staff in specialist settings and early years to be prioritised, given the current situation.

While this matter is still being debated and discussed by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, we did see a positive response from one of its members (Professor Adam Finn) yesterday, who said that the critical role teachers play really will figure in the discussions. We have seen similar statements today from the chief executive of NHS England and the vaccines minister.

Primary assessment

We were quick to inform the DfE that the only decision we would support in light of the current situation was cancelling all forms of statutory primary assessment in 2020/21. We were pleased to see the secretary of state confirm this in parliament last week. Our work now continues to consider the longer-term implications of this and discussions about 2021/22. We are also pressing for a decision about EYFSP for 2021.

Secondary exams  

You will have seen the announcement that secondary exams have been cancelled for 2021. We have already attended meetings with the DfE to discuss its plans on how best to approach GCSEs and A levels. These conversations have been informed by discussions we have been having with our secondary council and secondary members. Our understanding is that the profession will be formally consulted on these plans and that this should be launched in the coming days.

Alongside our work on primary assessment and secondary exams, we are in ongoing discussions with the DfE accountability team about the impact of these decisions on performance tables and the calculation and use of data.

Daily attendance form

Yesterday, the DfE relaunched its daily attendance form. Our view is that the new form is an excessive bureaucratic burden on schools. It does not simply stick to attendance questions (where we can see the need for the DfE to gather some data). It strays into a wide range of unrelated and unnecessary areas, including information relating to remote provision.

While schools do have a statutory duty to record pupil attendance daily, and there may be some merit in the government seeing this given the current demand on places, we would remind members that the form currently remains non-statutory.

We know that the demands on school leaders currently are exceptionally high, and some parts of the form may be easier and quicker to complete than others.

Planning ahead

Since March, we have been highly critical of the government for being behind the curve and failing to plan ahead. With that in mind, I wanted to let members know that we are currently asking the DfE for urgent talks about preparing for a safe full return to school. Our view is that by working on this now, we could avoid the last-minute, chaotic decision-making that has characterised the government's response to date. As part of that, we have asked the government to address the issue of February half-term now to ensure school leaders are not asked to spend their break carrying out track and trace. We will also be pushing on important issues such as potential additional protective measures that should be considered.

While not exhaustive, I hope the above information gives you an overview of our ongoing work on some of these key issues.

First published 12 January 2021