Support staff have little confidence in government school safety plans, says UNISON

Only 2% of employees felt reassured

An overwhelming majority of school support staff don’t feel reassured by government claims that English schools are safe to open to more pupils from the beginning of June, according to a UNISON survey published today (Friday).

Only 2% of employees felt reassured by the Prime Minister saying it was safe to open schools more widely from 1 June.

Almost all staff (96%) felt ministers hadn’t put safety first when developing their back to school plans, according to the survey of 45,200 teaching and classroom assistants, cleaners, administrative, management staff, and technicians*.

The primary, secondary, special and early years workers were surveyed soon after Boris Johnson’s call earlier this month for children in reception and years 1 and 6 to return to schools in England from a week on Monday.

More than three in five (61%) of staff surveyed were already working in schools – on a rota basis or full-time throughout the lockdown – so are well aware of the challenges of operating in schools during the pandemic.

Workers’ confidence in their own schools’ ability to be ready for a wider opening in June was low. Just over three quarters (77%) didn’t feel their school would have the resources to cope with the additional responsibility of putting health, safety and risk assessments in place in time.

As well as the threat to their own health, staff were concerned about the impact of a rushed return on their own children.

Of those with school age children, 95% said they didn’t feel it was safe to send them back to school. One worker said she was ‘petrified’ at the thought of her seven-year-old going back.

The research provides insights from school staff who have often been shut out of the debate about schools opening more widely, despite being among those who would be hardest hit if they contracted Covid-19, says UNISON.

That’s because support staff tend to be older, are disproportionately from the BAME community and come from more disadvantaged backgrounds than teachers, says UNISON. The government has not modelled the impact of an increase in pupil numbers on this group of staff.

Commenting on the findings, UNISON head of education Jon Richards said: “The survey sends out a strong message that ministers shouldn’t gamble with the safety of pupils, staff and the wider community by sending them back to school too early.

“It makes no sense for there to be such a push for schools to open more widely in England, while other parts of the UK are taking a much more considered approach.

“The government must commit to a safe and structured return. There’s little confidence in ministers’ plans, that’s clear to see. Staff, parents and schools aren’t ready to go back without reassurances that safety is the number one priority.

“Unions want to work with ministers to make schools as safe as possible, so that parents, their children and staff will want to return. But the rush to get some schools open to meet an arbitrary date isn’t at all helpful.”

Notes to editors:
Case study: A teaching assistant working with reception age children (five-year olds) and year 1 (six-year olds) said: “I haven’t seen my school’s risk assessment. I don’t feel schools are ready for pupils to come back. Plans haven’t been thought through properly. I’m sure with time they’ll find a way, but it’s happening too soon. There’s a broad one size fits all plan that doesn’t fit anybody. I wouldn’t want to wear a mask at school because it would be worrying and traumatic for the children. But as things stand, I wouldn’t be happy to go into work without one.”

– The survey was opened to support staff on 12 May and closed on 18 May 2020. There were 45,274 responses. The full survey report is available here.

– *Support staff includes: teaching assistants/learning support assistants, administrative and management staff, nursery nurses, technicians, behaviour management specialists, learning mentors, cleaners and family support advisors.

– UNISON is the UK’s largest union, with more than 1.3 million members providing public services – in education, local government, the NHS, police service and energy. They are employed in the public, private and voluntary sectors.

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