Leadership unions and academy representatives have been summoned to the Department for Education to discuss schools’ response to coronavirus.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the ASCL union, said today that his organisation, along with the National Association of Headteachers and Confederation of School Trusts, have been asked to attend a meeting on Monday about contingency planning.
It follows an announcement by the prime minister yesterday that school closures are not currently being advised by the government, despite a move to the “delay” phase of its response to the pandemic.
Barton said he didn’t know the full agenda for Monday’s meeting, but said they were likely to discuss whether certain schools will have to remain open to effectively look after pupils whose parents work in the emergency services.
It follows concerns that closures, if and when they go ahead, could prevent essential workers from going into work because their children are at home.
“I think the idea is to kind of take stock of where are we? What are the implications of the announcement yesterday?” said Barton.
“I think inevitably one of the things we’re going to be talking about is, is it really realistic, in the worst-case scenario, that every single school in the country is going to close? What will the implications be for certain youngsters.
“I don’t know any more than that at this stage, but I think the fact that that is likely to be part of the discussion is reassuring.”
He also called for “clarification” from Ofqual over its contingency plans for exam season to deal with rumours tests are going to be brought forward.
Barton said yesterday’s had brought into “sharper focus” the preparation going on behind the scenes, with planning ahead of summer exams a key issue.
The exams regulator confirmed earlier this month that it was working with government on plans for this year’s tests, but is yet to announce any delay or change to the timetable.
However, Barton warned he had heard rumours in the broadcast media, including one that exams would be brought forward, and said there was a “need for reassurance” that such an approach has been ruled out.
He also said there was evidence of parents choosing to pre-emptively withdraw their children from school, despite the government’s current guidance, and pointed to advice from experts that having children out of school at this stage “could be entirely counter-productive”.
Ofsted may need to suspend inspections
The government may also need to suspend Ofsted inspections and ignore school attendance and performance data as coronavirus spreads, Barton warned today.
He told journalists at the ASCL conference this morning that changes to Ofsted inspections may be needed, especially if schools end up facing high levels of pupil and staff absence.
“Given the high-stakes nature of Ofsted it would be unfair if we kind of assumed that those reports were somehow business as usual, or that an inspection could tell you anything genuine or authentic,” he said.
“So I think one of the things we would be saying is there will come a point at which it looks actually as if you should suspend inspection in its current form, but that’s some way down the line I suspect.”
He also said that holding schools accountable for attendance “in a way that you might have done in the past nationally is probably not a good thing to do, just like we think that as soon as schools start closing, thinking that performance tables are going to tell you anything other than some schools are open and some schools are closed”.
“So why don’t we just say this is not a normal year we won’t use normal measures. That will allow us to focus on the important stuff.”
In a tweet sent this afternoon, Ofsted said it was “operating business as usual across our inspection/regulatory work, in line with government advice” and was in “daily contact with the DfE”.
”The spread of COVID-19 poses challenges to schools, colleges, childcare and social care providers – not least the potential impact on attendance and staffing. We will take this into account in our inspections & regulatory work.”
NEU cancels annual conference
The National Education Union has announced its annual conference in April will not go ahead amid concerns vulnerable delegates will not be able to attend.
In a statement on its website, the NEU said it was also concerned that having so many people in close quarters for four days “could have led to many activists and staff being self-isolated and/or ill at the same time”.
The union had examined the possibilities for holding a smaller conference at the same time, but decided none of the options were viable. Staff have now been asked to prepare a paper on how a conference could be held at a “later stage in the year”.
“We will keep timings of this under review – but are currently asking the joint general secretaries to look at the possibilities for a one-day conference early in the autumn term.”
They added: “This was a very hard decision for us to make, but we are confident that it is the right decision, made now to put an end to uncertainty and worry in the minds of our delegates.”