New government guidance for schools

Published January 11, 2021 at 8:44

New government guidance for schools

The Department for Education have published new guidance for schools on restricting attendance during the national lockdown.

We are dismayed that the new DfE guidance does not address concerns that UNISON and other unions have raised about the impact that new definitions of vulnerable and critical workers’ children will have on attendance and the ability to prevent viral transmission in schools. We are concerned that the widening of the definition of vulnerable category is being driven by the government’s complete failure to roll out IT equipment to all children in need, despite having 9 months to sort this.

We are therefore urging school leaders and headteachers to implement the following measures to protect pupils and staff from the new Covid strain:

  • Limit bubble sizes to a maximum of 15 pupils per class or 50% of the school’s usual class size, whichever is smaller and will ensure 2m social distancing
  • Staff should remain within their bubble at all times with no crossover working

In special schools and alternative provision it will not be possible, or even appropriate, for every child to receive face-to-face provision every day. Schools must be allowed the flexibility to establish which vulnerable learners could be offered time in schools.


Special schools

UNISON believes that the safety of staff and pupils working in special schools is paramount.

The advice from the Department for Education states that most, if not all, pupils attending special schools/colleges and alternative provision are classed as vulnerable and should therefore be receiving a face-to-face education, if appropriate. UNISON does not believe that it is either possible or appropriate for a special school, college or alternative provision to be able to remain open to all pupils whilst ensuring the health and safety of pupils, carers and staff during the lockdown.

The DfE has now stated that the national restrictions mean that all children who can stay at home should stay at home.

Download UNISON guidance for special schools/colleges and alternative provision

Please also see the FAQs in the section below called ‘Special schools/colleges and alternative provision’.

If you have any concerns about your educational setting or need support please contact your branch for advice.


Early years

Early years settings, including nurseries, will remain open to all children during the lockdown. UNISON believes that early years settings must be treated in the same way as primary schools and should be closed except to vulnerable and key workers’ children. Where schools have the option of closing school based nurseries we would strongly recommend that they do so.

We urge the government to reconsider its decision to keep early year establishments open, despite concerns over a new COVID strain.

Why is early years being treated differently to schools?

The DfE has failed to provide any scientific advice for the different treatment of early years settings. If the Department for Education is to advise early years providers to continue to provide care while instructing other education providers to close, it must provide a clear and unequivocal scientific basis for doing so. If this evidence doesn’t exist, then the government cannot and must not put the safety of staff and local communities at risk.

UNISON is calling on the government to provide this evidence and further review guidance and increase support for the early years sector.

The DfE has stated that it believes, ‘Early years settings remain low risk environments for children and staff. 0-5 year olds continue to have the lowest confirmed rates of coronavirus of all age groups, and there is no evidence that the new variant of coronavirus disproportionately affects young children. Evidence shows that pre-school children are less susceptible to infection and are not playing a driving role in transmission.’

However, speaking on the BBC, Calum Semple, professor of child health and a member of the government’s own scientific advisory committee said that the decision to keep early years settings was a political one and not one based on scientific advice. He states that any mixing is a risk and that there is no basis for treating early years differently from schools.

Early years settings in Northern Ireland and Scotland have closed to help prevent the spread of the virus, yet the DfE in England has said that it will withdraw funding from any nursery in England that closes, leaving many in an impossible position.

UNISON has received many messages from early years workers expressing their fear and anger at the way they are being treated as somehow less important than other education workers. We are taking these messages to the DfE and continue to urge them to change their position on keeping early years settings open.

What else is UNISON calling for?

UNISON believes that all early years settings will need to review their risk assessments as a result of the increased transmissibility of the new variant of COVID-19 and the increased risk to staff. We are calling for a review of the size of so called ‘bubbles’ and restricting further the number of children in these groups. Settings will also need to re-assess the risk to vulnerable staff and allow home working where possible.

We are calling on the government to include early years staff as a priority group for both testing and vaccination along with all other education staff.

Early years staff must have the same rights and protections as other education staff. We know that staff are unable to apply social distancing within early years settings, which already places them at increased risk. We need to know more about the risk to staff and children about the impact of the new variant of the virus among young children before placing staff and communities at greater risk by re-opening all nurseries while infection rates are so high.

The government also needs to increase the short-term funding support to early years settings during this second wave to ensure that we have a sustainable sector when demand returns to normal.

Can I refuse to attend work if I believe that my workplace is unsafe?

UNISON remains clear that members who work in early years have a right to a safe working environment. We will continue to place pressure on the Government and employers to ensure this. In addition, individuals shouldn’t have to work where they reasonably believe that they (or others) face serious and imminent danger.

Please contact your local UNISON branch for further advice and support.

Can early years staff still qualify for furlough?

If staff meet the qualifying criteria then they can still be placed on furlough. This applies if the setting either closes, or remains open but at reduced capacity.

What happens to clinically vulnerable staff?

The government have advised clinically extremely vulnerable people to shield during this lockdown. If you are clinically extremely vulnerable you should work from home or stay at home on full pay where you cannot work from home.

UNISON believes that working from home will also be the safest option for other employees with underlying vulnerabilities or who live with people who are clinically vulnerable.

Please contact your local UNISON branch for further advice and support.


What if I have a question?

A full list of FAQs for school support staff and early years staff in England is provided below. (See links at the top of the page for advice in Scotland, Cymru/Wales and Northern Ireland.).

Please note that we are currently updating these FAQs in light of the new DfE guidance. We will notify members by email when new FAQs are added.

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