Lessons to be learned by government after limited schools’ reopening, says UNISON

Survey highlights safety failings with some schools ignoring ‘safe’ class size guidance

Rushed government reopening plans have led to guidelines on ‘safe’ class sizes being ignored by ​some schools, according to a survey published by UNISON today (Friday).

More than one in five (22%) ​support staff say primary schools have operated class sizes bigger than the 15 pupils per group maximum recommended to maintain social distancing.

Nursery school ‘bubbles’ – where infants remain in small protected groups – also have more than the eight-child preferred maximum contained in government guidance, say nearly half (48%) of those surveyed.

The data was compiled from the responses of more than 8,000 employees, ​of which seven in ten (71%) are teaching and learning support assistants working in primary, nursery and special schools in England.

The findings come as the government stepped back ​earlier this week from opening primary schools for all year groups until September at the earliest.

The figures raise serious concerns around safety, especially the lack of time given to schools to minimise the risk of coronavirus infection, says UNISON.

Almost half (48%) of all the respondents said that – after the first week of opening for reception, year one and year six pupils – they weren’t reassured by their experience of working with increased pupil numbers.

Their biggest concern (56%) was contracting Covid-19 and passing it on to others, with nearly half (48%) saying social distancing between pupils is only being followed to a small extent or not at all.

The survey results highlight failings in ensuring measures are in place to keep staff and pupils safe. Four fifths (80%) of respondents say their school or nursery has not provided any detail on how the government’s ‘test, trace and isolate’ system will work in their area.

In addition, nearly one in five (19%) ​say they weren’t consulted on their workplace risk assessment in good time before ​the wider reopening​.

A third (33%) say their school or nursery is not allowing staff to use personal protective equipment (PPE) if they wish to. Almost a quarter (23%) said they were not given PPE even after a risk assessment ​said it was needed.

Other ​concerns ​highlighted include​school managers asking staff with childcare issues, the clinically vulnerable and ​black staff to return to work on school sites, without carrying out individual risk assessments.

Comments submitted to UNISON from staff who took part in the survey include:

-“I’ve been allowed to work from home after the doctor signed me off sick for anxiety. Then I was told it was highly likely I’d be needed from 1 June. I’ve been going to work half days leaving my child at home alone.”
-“It’s been a very scary time as we have had no PPE, no guidance as to what guidelines we should be following and no risk assessment.”
-“There are no structured lesson plans, no alcohol sanitiser, no PPE. One bottle of cleaning product and one cloth is shared between four classrooms.”
-“I’m more anxious about the situation now than before. The risk assessment wasn’t given to staff, but the school wants no liability. They say take it up with ​the government.”

​Commenting on the findings, UNISON head of education Jon Richards said: “This survey shows the pressures schools have been under to meet the June deadline.

​“The result is some corners have been cut, with staff ​either not consulted in time​, or not at all​ in some cases.

“​The focus has been on supporting pupils already in school, those still at home and the most vulnerable children. Now ​unions, staff and ministers must work together to get many more pupils back in September.

“Children and staff ​must be brought back safely​, and parents allowed to get back to work.​” ​

Notes to editors:
– Click here to access the full survey data. The findings are based on responses from 8,791 school staff in England including primary (87%), special schools and pupil referral units (9%), and nursery (4%)​ schools. The majority who took part were teaching/learning support assistants including higher level (71%), followed by administrative staff (5%), nursery nurses (4%); as well as learning mentors, midday supervisors, site/facilities staff, catering workers and school business professionals (all 2% each). Others included cleaners, behaviour management officers and technicians.

Case studies:

-Sarah (not her real name), a teaching assistant who is supervising two ‘bubbles’ of key workers’ children. She says: “My family have asthma and I’m concerned about spending more time in the classroom. I put my clothes in the washing machine and have a bath as soon as I return from school.”

-Louise (not her real name), a learning support assistant who is a single mother without childcare. She says: “Cover teachers are coming in to work with several classes, compromising the bubbles. I’m scared to bring the virus home to my children. I’ve offered to work in the mornings when learning takes place but the head says I’ll lose pay and my job. She says it’s imperative I return to work although I’ve no childcare.”
– 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, voluntary and private sectors.

Media contacts:
Sophie Goodchild M: 07767 325595 E: s.goodchild@unison.co.uk
Liz Chinchen M: 07778 158175 E: l.chinchen@unison.co.uk