Coronavirus: Leadership unions say school closures 'likely' after DfE crunch talks

The general secretaries of England’s two school leadership unions have said it is “likely that a number of schools will have to close”, following a meeting with ministers.

Geoff Barton, the leader of ASCL and Paul Whiteman, who heads up the NAHT, said they had had a “very productive meeting” with education secretary Gavin Williamson this afternoon.

Although their joint statement did not give any concrete details of solutions discussed at the meeting, the two leaders warned that the difficulty in keeping schools open with growing numbers of staff having to isolate was the “most pressing challenge”.

“It is likely that a number of schools will have to close because there are too few staff available to teach, support and supervise children,” they said.

Their comments echo new guidance issued by Public Health England this morning, which stated that closures “may be necessary” in response to staff shortages caused by coronavirus isolation.

Headteachers and other school staff have reacted with disdain to the news that despite efforts to minimise social contact across the country, the government is still not recommend that schools close en-masse.

There have been warnings about the impact keeping schools open will have on vulnerable pupils and staff, although there are also concerns about how these groups will fare if closures do go ahead.

In their joint statement, Barton and Whiteman also said they were concerned “about the implications for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities as well as children who receive free school meals if a school is closed or they have to self-isolate, and similarly, the wellbeing of vulnerable young people where there are identified safeguarding risks”.

“There is also the crucial question of SATs, GCSE and A-level exams which are scheduled in May and June.

“We must move quickly to provide clarity and address the obvious anxiety for pupils, families and staff about what may or may not happen, and what contingencies are in place to deal with the inevitable disruption.”

The leaders said they had also asked Williamson to suspend routine school inspections and performance tables “to allow schools and colleges to focus on the national mission of coping with this unprecedented situation”.

“This is clearly a very difficult situation and a very challenging scenario for school leaders, and the government is well aware of our concerns.

“We will continue working with the government to identify and tackle a number of issues for schools and colleges arising from the coronavirus emergency.

“We expect to hold further talks with the Secretary of State and his officials later this week.”

Leora Cruddas, the chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, which represents academy trusts, was also in the meeting.

Also also said it was “productive”, and that Williamson had been “keen to understand” what is going on in the sector in order to feed it back to the government’s COBRA emergency committee.

Cruddas acknowledged that staff shortages was a “growing issue” in the sector, but said she was “clear that schools are the best places for children and young people to be now unless [they] have actually got symptoms”.

She added that Williamson had been “cognisant” on the particular issues facing special schools, which are more likely to have pupils who are particularly vulnerable to the disease.