Coronavirus: Schools 'have legal duty' to provide remote education

A new legal duty on schools to provide remote education to pupils unable to attend school due to Covid-19 has been described as a “slap in the face”.

The Department for Education (DfE) has published a temporary continuity direction under the coronavirus act 2020, which states all state-funded school age children must be provided “immediate access to remote education” should they miss school due to coronavirus.

The DfE said the direction is “to provide legal certainty for all involved in the education sector” and makes clear “schools have a legal duty to provide remote education for state-funded, school-age children unable to attend school due to coronavirus (Covid-19)”.

The direction comes into force on October 22 and “will have effect until the end of the current school year, unless it is revoked by a further direction”.

Paul Whiteman,  general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “At every step, school leaders have done what was asked of them, and then gone beyond. This will be perceived as a cynical attempt by government to look strong by acting tough.

“It will be seen as a slap-in-the-face to school leaders, destroying any good-will remaining, and is likely to live long in the memory of all education professionals.”

He added: “By reaching for legal powers the government risks sending an unequivocal message to the profession and parents that they do not trust school leaders to act in the interests of young people in this country.”

DfE guidance previously stated it “expects” schools to be able to provide the remote education.

Expectations include; setting meaningful and ambitious work each day in a number of different subjects, teaching a “planned and well-sequenced curriculum”, and gauging  how well pupils are progressing through the curriculum.

There will also be disquiet among schools who say the government has failed to provide enough help on the technology front to ensure poorer pupils have access to laptops for home working.

Schools Week revealed back in May that schools criticised the government’s £85 million scheme to give disadvantaged pupils free laptops – saying their allocations fell well short of what was needed.

While the government has announced 250,000 more laptops, they can only be ordered in certain conditions .

The new direction warns “the duty to comply with this direction by a responsible body is enforceable by the secretary of state making an application to the High Court or the county court for an injunction, and any such application may be made without notice being given to the responsible body”.

However, the DfE said taking legal action would be a “last resort” and that the department “will take a proportionate and fair approach to assessing the adequacy of remote education provision”.

And where a school raises concerns or issues itself the department’s “first priority will be to help schools with their remote education plans and provision.”

The direction applies to state schools, but not post 16 education such as further education colleges, sixth form colleges or 16-19 academies.

Responsible bodies are usually academy trusts, school governors and councils.

To help schools uphold their duty, additional funding of over £1 million will be invested in expanding the EdTech Demonstrator programme, a network of schools and colleges that provide peer-to-peer support to help teachers and support workers use technology as effectively as possible.

The programme, which currently has capacity to provide bespoke one to one support to 3,400 schools and colleges, will be expanded to support a further 1,000.
New resources will also be made available for staff including good practice guide and school-led webinars.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “The best place for children and young people to learn is in the classroom, which is why we made it a national priority to get all pupils back into schools and colleges full-time, and why I have been so pleased to see millions of them returning over the past few weeks.

“We have also, as we would expect, seen small numbers of students self-isolating in line with public health advice. It’s vital these students have access to high quality and consistent remote education.