Education unions need answers from education secretary

Safety concerns for staff about increased pupil numbers

The National Education Union and UNISON have today (Friday) written to education secretary Gavin Williamson raising concerns about the effect a significant extension to the number of pupils allowed back into school will have on Coronavirus transmission rates.

The unions say they have been continually left in the dark about scientific evidence driving the decision-making on school openings, despite the obvious risks to school staff, pupils, their families, and the wider community.

The Department for Education (DfE) has this week expanded the numbers of pupils classed as vulnerable, to include those who have difficulties with learning online from home.

This will mean a large influx of children heading back into school that will disproportionately increase the numbers attending in deprived areas, potentially driving up the risk of transmission in poorer locations.

In their letter, the NEU and UNISON say they must be given the data that informed these decisions and be involved in key discussions involving the safety of staff.

In addition, the two unions have written to head teachers across England to correct comments made by the education secretary in Parliament and an assertion made by the DfE in an email to schools that the NEU and UNISON have withdrawn “inaccurate” advice to staff.

They say the advice was correct, has not been withdrawn and Gavin Williamson’s comments were wrong.

UNISON head of education Jon Richards said: “No one wants to see pupils’ education disrupted but it’s vital there’s total confidence in school safety.

“Staff and the wider community need to be sure that increasing the numbers through school doors isn’t going to drive up infection rates.

“The majority being asked to go into schools will be support staff, many of whom are in higher risk groups.

“Unions need to see the science behind government decisions so anxious school staff are assured this is based on safety rather than politics.

“The government mustn’t create further risks for people living in the poorest areas.”

NEU Joint General Secretary Mary Bousted said: “On Monday night, Boris Johnson told the nation that schools are ‘vectors for transmission’, while continuing to claim that schools are safe. He cannot have it both ways.

“The latest ONS data shows that infection rates amongst school children have been truly alarming over the Christmas period, with 1 in 27 secondary-age children and 1 in 40 primary-age infected. The R rate remains above 1.

“Quite apart from the personal impact to those children’s families and the wider community, it simply wasn’t sustainable for schools to continue as before. The unions have led the way on protecting schools. The government appears to have been engaged in the exact opposite.

“We stand by members who asserted their rights to safety and will continue to do so where it is necessary. Gavin Williamson’s efforts to distort our position simply highlights his failure to protect schools in the first place.”

Media contacts:
UNISON – Anthony Barnes M: 07834 864794 E:
NEU – 0207 380 4706; out of hours: 07879 480 061