UK News

Parents angry at shifting government Covid messages, say school leaders

Parents are angry and confused by the government’s shifting messages over how schools deal with Covid outbreaks among pupils, according to a headteachers’ leader, who says “exhausted” staff are unlikely to get a break over the summer.

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said comments by MPs and special advisers meant teachers were being blamed for the huge rise in pupils in England having to self-isolate, while ministers dangled the prospect of the isolation rules being scrapped.

 

“The debate is creating confusion and friction at the school gates – parents are anticipating that these changes are going to come and make things easier for them, and their patience is wearing thin that the government hasn’t followed through,” said Whiteman.

 

“Parents can’t understand why bubbles are being burst after positive tests and why children are being sent home to self-isolate. And our members are getting the blame for that, when all they can do is follow the guidelines and rules that are in place, not anticipate what’s coming over the hill.”

Whiteman said the sharp rise in school Covid outbreaks – after official figures showed 330,000 pupils in England isolating at home last week – was compounding the heavy workload for headteachers, which was likely to continue into August.

School leaders will be expected to oversee test and trace for pupils infected a week after the end of term, while those in secondary schools will need to administer teacher-assessed A-levels and GCSEs next month. That includes the appeals process over grades, which will need to be done urgently for students applying for university or sixth-form college places.

Before the new school year in September, heads may have to prepare for further disruption among the last remaining unvaccinated age groups. But despite the hints dropped by Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, the government has not yet announced its plans for September.

“We are a fortnight from the end of term in most schools – so if we have to make arrangements, for example, for on-site testing, then we need to do that now,” Whiteman said. “If we are going to have to continue to live with bubbles, we need to be able to arrange those bubbles and get the timetables right. If there’s also testing needed before children come back, then we are going to have to arrange staggered starts in secondary.

“So the pressure on schools isn’t really abating, and the government isn’t doing anything in the last two weeks of term to help. Come September, we’re still going to have a workforce that has been under pressure even over the summer.”

Whiteman’s views were echoed by Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, who wrote in the TES that the government had “presided over a week of unhelpful confusion and sniping”, adding it marked “another squalid low point in the trust and confidence that the education sector now has in the government”.

Whiteman, Barton and the National Education Union have written to Williamson in protest at the lack of guidance for the next school year. After accusing the government of treating school leaders “with what is, frankly, starting to feel like contempt”, the letter states: “We do not accept that schools and colleges should be expected, on an indefinite basis, to continue to undertake public health duties, to the detriment of our members’ health and wellbeing, and to their capacity to focus on providing the high-quality education that children and young people desperately need.”