Coronavirus: Schools may have to prioritise remaining pupils ‘according to need’, warns NAHT

Schools may have to “prioritise according to need” when admitting vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers next week, it has been warned, as leaders wait on further details of the government’s closure plans.

The National Association of Headteachers has said it is seeking guidance from the government on how schools with capacity concerns should decide which pupils should be offered places under emergency measures drawn up in response to coronavirus.

Gavin Williamson announced on Wednesday that schools across England would close to all pupils except for those considered vulnerable – particularly pupils with a social worker or education, health and care plan – and the children of essential workers.

However, a lack of clear guidance on many issues has left headteachers questioning how the new system will work. As a result, the NAHT has urged its members to pre-empt government announcements on exactly what constitutes key workers and vulnerable pupils.

Health secretary Matthew Hancock confirmed on Question Time tonight that the list will not be published until tomorrow, despite an earlier pledge to publish it today.

In guidance issued to members today, the NAHT said the announcement required “immediate action” from schools to identify who is eligible for care. It will also require schools to, “in some cases, prioritise offers to families according to capacity, need and health advice from public health England”.

The advice follows warnings about the capacity of schools to remain open during the crisis. The Association of School and College Leaders warned earlier this week that “between 10 to 20 per cent” of teachers are now self–isolating, and the impact on schools shows no sign of abating.

The NAHT said schools should “immediately” ask parents to inform the school if they believe they are a key worker, and should also identify “any pupils they judge to be ‘vulnerable’ and in need of a place”.

Schools “can then use that information to offer places based on their capacity”, which “may mean that schools will have to prioritise according to need”.

“We have been told that the government will publish guidance on how to prioritise within the key worker information. Schools should consult this.”

The union also warned that it is possible schools won’t be ready to provide the care required of them “in full” from Monday morning, and that some may need to “start by offering places to a smaller group where the need is most urgent”, for example, the children of A&E nurses and doctors.

Schools should “stress to parents that school will close on Friday and that you will notify them when it will reopen to provide the reduced provision offer for certain pupils”.

“You must clearly explain to all parents, whether they are key workers or not, that only families with an offer of a place should attend the school.”

It comes after ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton told heads there was an “aim of setting up some kind of national task group to work through some of the details, to address questions, to target extra resources, to give you a sense that you are not working alone in these strange times”.

In a memo to heads, he urged them to place “maximum focus on communication – explaining to staff, pupils and your community of parents and governors (a) what’s happening now and (b) what may happen next.

“You’ll be involved in planning provision for next week’s in-school cohort. You’ll be thinking about resources for those pupils who will be at home, probably for the next few months. You’ll be trying to make plans around which staff you may or may not have.”

Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, Williamson said headteachers and teachers were “central to the country’s response to the current crisis”.

“I am reassured by their readiness to step up and to take the lead in supporting families through this most incredibly difficult time.

“All of those who work in our schools, colleges and universities rightly take their place next to our NHS staff and other key workers as central to our efforts as a country in battling the virus, and I thank them from the bottom of my heart for all of their support and all they do.”

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