The government broke its own wellbeing pledge four times during last week’s half term when it sent letters about sex education and guidance on two new policies.
Further Schools Week analysis found the Department for Education has published 31 updates online over holiday periods since pledging to only release content for education workers in office hours.
Exceptions to the promise, made when ministers published their education staff wellbeing charter in May 2021, include occasions where “there is a significant user need not to do so” or “a legislative requirement”.
Our analysis found nine instances where it was clear a caveat did apply – such as communicating important updates relating to Covid or RAAC.
That left 22 occasions where the government appears to have broken its own wellbeing pledge.
DfE ‘riding roughshod over wellbeing commitments’
However, the DfE contested this and said “most cases cited” in our analysis had applicable exceptions.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, accused ministers of “repeatedly riding roughshod over its own commitments”, leaving the profession “feeling like it is being treated with contempt”.
“The vast majority of these are not urgent and there is no great user-demand for them. It shows a government in chaos, scrambling for headlines, but not listening or engaging properly with the profession to actually make the improvements that are so desperately needed.”
The 22 updates that appear to have flouted the wellbeing commitment include the unveiling in April last year of the department’s sustainability and climate change strategy, and the launch two months later of a review into how the government works with academy trusts.
Some of the announcements were press releases, while the rest were either newly released or updated policy papers, guidance and consultations.
Most recent breaches came in half-term
A report detailing the findings of a consultation on the national plan for music education was published in August 2021. It had concluded 17 months before.
In the middle of this year’s February half term, a three-month call for evidence on the use of reasonable force and restrictive practices in schools was published.
The most recent examples came last week, when, according to Teacher Tapp, 72 per cent of staff were on half term.
On Thursday, October 26, the government named the 35 local authorities in line to receive a share of its “hardship fund” to help pay for 6.5 per cent teacher pay rises.
A handbook outlining the DfE’s national wraparound childcare programme was released the following day. While “primarily for local authorities”, the document stated “it may also be of interest” to schools and trusts.
Criticisms of Keegan’s RSHE intervention
These came after Gillian Keegan announced last Monday that primaries and secondaries “should have the confidence to share” RSHE materials with parents.
She then wrote an open letter to schools the next day stating contractual clauses with curriculum providers that “seek to prevent” headteachers from “sharing resources with parents…are void and unenforceable”.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the school leaders’ union ASCL, said the findings showed the DfE had “driven a coach and horses through its commitment in the staff wellbeing charter”.
He said Keegan attempted to counter her half-term RSHE letter by saying there was “no need to take action until school resumes”.
Wellbeing charter ‘clear sometimes we’ll have to publish in holidays’
“But by that logic, the DfE could send out anything at any time with the same message attached.”
When the charter was first published, Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said it was “more important than ever” that wellbeing and mental health were at the forefront of education policy.
Responding to our findings, a DfE spokesperson stressed the “the charter is clear that there are some instances where the department will need to publish content outside of term time”.
She said “most” of the content cited in our analysis “was not primarily aimed at educators nor required any action to be taken”.
The DfE’s specific pledge is: “We will publish GOV.UK content aimed at education staff only during working hours (unless, for specific guidance documents, there is a significant user need not to do so, or there is a legislative requirement).
A decision on whether an update has broken the pledge is sometimes a matter of opinion (and the DfE has disagreed with us). But our threshold is: is this a published update (which includes press releases), does it apply to any school staff, and is it a substantive update?