Lessons to be learned by government after limited schools’ reopening across East of England, says UNISON

Rushed government reopening plans have led to guidelines on ‘safe’ class sizes being ignored by some schools in the East of England, according to a survey published by UNISON today.

Nearly a quarter (23%) of support staff say primary schools have operated class sizes bigger than the 15 pupils per group maximum recommended to maintain social distancing.

The data was compiled from the responses of more than 500 employees across the east of England, of which seven in ten (72%) are teaching and learning support assistants working in primary, nursery and special schools in England.

The findings come as the government stepped back earlier this week from opening primary schools for all year groups until September at the earliest.

The figures raise serious concerns around safety, especially the lack of time given to schools to minimise the risk of coronavirus infection, says UNISON.

Nearly half (49%) of all the respondents said that – after the first week of opening for reception, year one and year six pupils – they weren’t reassured by their experience of working with increased pupil numbers.

Survey comments

  • “I’ve been allowed to work from home after the doctor signed me off sick for anxiety. Then I was told it was highly likely I’d be needed from 1 June. I’ve been going to work half days leaving my child at home alone.”
  • “It’s been a very scary time as we have had no PPE, no guidance as to what guidelines we should be following and no risk assessment.”
  • “There are no structured lesson plans, no alcohol sanitiser, no PPE. One bottle of cleaning product and one cloth is shared between four classrooms.”
  • “I’m more anxious about the situation now than before. The risk assessment wasn’t given to staff, but the school wants no liability. They say take it up with  the government.”

Their biggest concern (51%) was contracting Covid-19 and passing it on to others, with nearly half (44%) saying social distancing between pupils is only being followed to a small extent or not at all.

The survey results highlight failings in ensuring measures are in place to keep staff and pupils safe. Three quarters (77%) of respondents say their school or nursery has not provided any detail on how the government’s ‘test, trace and isolate’ system will work in their area.

In addition, one in five (20%)  say they weren’t consulted on their workplace risk assessment in good time before  the wider reopening.

A third (34%) say their school or nursery is not allowing staff to use personal protective equipment (PPE) if they wish to. More than a fifth (22%) said they were not given PPE even after a risk assessment said it was needed.

Other concerns highlighted include school managers asking staff with childcare issues, the clinically vulnerable and Black staff to return to work on school sites, without carrying out individual risk assessments.

Read full report

Commenting on the findings, UNISON Eastern schools lead Tracey Sparkes said: “This survey shows the pressures schools have been under to meet the Government’s June deadline.

“The rush has meant some corners have been cut, with staff many staff not consulted in time or not at all in some cases — causing confusion and real worry for staff and students alike.

“It is vital that unions, staff and ministers work together to get many more pupils back in September.

“Our main priority is for children and staff to be brought back safely, and parents allowed to get back to work.”

The results are drawn from a national survey of 8,791 school staff in England. Click here to access the full survey data. The 529 school staff in the East of England include primary (85%), special schools and pupil referral units (10%), and nursery (6%)  schools.

The majority who took part were teaching/learning support assistants including higher level (72%), followed by administrative staff (4%), as well as nursery nurses, learning mentors, midday supervisors, site/facilities staff, catering workers and school business professionals. Others included cleaners, behaviour management officers and technicians.

Case studies

  • Sarah (not her real name), a teaching assistant who is supervising two ‘bubbles’ of key workers’ children, says: “My family have asthma and I’m concerned about spending more time in the classroom. I put my clothes in the washing machine and have a bath as soon as I return from school.”
  • Louise (not her real name), a learning support assistant who is a single mother without childcare, says: “Cover teachers are coming in to work with several classes, compromising the bubbles. I’m scared to bring the virus home to my children. I’ve offered to work in the mornings when learning takes place but the head says I’ll lose pay and my job. She says it’s imperative I return to work although I’ve no childcare.”