Schools urgently need more guidance around key worker status

27 Mar 2020, 5:00

Headteachers are ultimately in charge of who accesses their schools but better guidance is needed quickly, writes Esther Maxwell

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world on its head. Daily life has been significantly changed for almost every single person and businesses have had to close their doors temporarily. For schools however, the situation hasn’t been as clear-cut. Closed to the majority of pupils, schools have been asked to continue providing support for vulnerable children and the children of key workers, as identified by the Government.

However, a lack of clarity over the official key worker classification has been putting additional strain on schools. A well-publicised letter from retailer Pets at Home which claimed the chain’s staff were indeed key workers has received significant backlash from the education sector. Many schools claimed they were being placed under immense pressure from having to look after so many children, while endeavouring to keep necessary social distancing measures in place.

Despite additional guidance released this week by the Department for Education, grey areas around key workers is leading to an increased number of disputes at the school gate. With so many institutions operating on skeleton staff and having to provide both online and face-to-face education in tandem, an already difficult situation is being made even trickier.

It is understandable that disputes are arising

Fundamentally, schools should remain open to provide care where one parent is a critical worker or the child is vulnerable. As it stands, schools cannot make a decision about who they believe to be a critical worker or not; their main aim is to stay open for children of critical workers and vulnerable children where they can, as instructed by government. In turn, government understands that some schools may be unable to stay open due to severe staff shortages and will work with local areas to use neighboring schools as necessary.

This has led to an undoubtedly sensitive situation, and it is understandable that disputes are arising. On one hand, workers are being told by their employers that they are classed as critical and must continue to come into work to keep their jobs, and on the other there are the schools who are feeling the strain of having to look after more children than they can cope with.

Under normal circumstances, any parent who wishes to raise a complaint against a school must go through a set formal procedure. This begins with raising an informal complaint, which, subject to whether it can be resolved or not, is escalated up through the governing body. However, circumstances are clearly not normal and the usual method of resolving parental complaints is likely to be too time- and resource-intensive to function as it should.

This creates the potential for schools to be exposed to a claim

Ultimately, schools and headteachers have the ability to refuse entry to any children they believe should be remaining at home with their parents. At this time of uncertainty, taking such a draconian approach is unlikely to be productive. However, it is likely to be driven by necessity, and the safety of staff and young people on site remains a priority for school leaders. Safe staff-to-pupil ratios still apply, and are made all the more important by the need to maintain adequate social distancing measures.

If social distancing measures are unable to be maintained, there is an issue over whether schools could be open to complaints from parents who feel their children may have caught COVID-19 due to inadequate safeguarding. This creates the potential for schools to be exposed to a claim. However, this is unexplored territory and, one would hope, unlikely to materialise.

Government guidelines as they stand are extremely difficult in a school setting. The new Coronavirus Act 2020 contains provision for the Secretary of State to temporarily close an educational institution if, on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, it is a necessary and proportionate action in response to the incidence or transmission of coronavirus.

In the meantime, a drip feed of information continues, but the brief schools have been set doesn’t get easier. As the days and weeks go by, parents and teachers are going to need much more and much better guidance if disputes are to be kept at a minimum during an already-turbulent period.

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  1. Derenda shell

    I am a key worker working at a very small receiver kitchen at a small school. Social distancing is almost impossible. Staff and the children are not adhearing to social distancing within the school and some of the children’s parents work for the NHS. Where does that leave me potentially putting myself and own family at risk .To top it all in am also a single parent having to leave my 15yr old daughter at home with my younger son ,having been told if I do not go into work I will not get paid and yet management are sat at home with there famI lies still receiving full pay .Where is the justice .All keyworkers should be given an extra weekly bonus for working within a dangerous and risky environment. They should also be given a choice as to whether they work and pay should not be stopped and they should be payed as normal (who will look after my children should anything happen to me ) Also once vouchers go out kitchen staff will not be needed .Clear information needs to be given .Management are saying that we need to still go in to clean but our kitchen due to it been so small has now been cleaned a number of times

  2. Kirk Hayles

    A fundamental point has been ignored in this article and it is one that is leading to more children needing to be in school than necessary and putting headteachers in the firing line with parents. It is quite frankly ridiculous that only ONE parent needs to be a key worker to entitle a couple where one parent is NOT a key worker, to send their chld(ren) to school. Let’s take an example of one parent being a doctor but the other parent is a home maker or in a non-critical role. Should this family be allowed to send their child(ren) to school? By doing so it potentially increases the number of teachers/support staff (i.e. other key workers) that are in turn, exposed to greater risk. All schools are more than happy to do their bit to support the nation’s critical workers and thankfully in my own school parents are making supportive and sensible choices but give us a framework/rules that make sense and protect all.

    • Stephen

      That’s ridiculous to say that you should only be able to send your children to school if both parents are key workers. My wife is a key worker and I work in construction, which is not on the list of key workers. But am forced to go to work under government guidelines that construction workers should still go to work. If we were not allowed to send our children to school I would not be able to go to work, my wife’s wages would be nowhere near enough to cover our bills even with the mortgage holiday, and I would have no wages coming in at all, wouldn’t get furlough money, leaving us well and truly on our backsides.