Somerset school opening row

There is still no consensus between the teachers and Government/Local Government over whether it is safe to reopen schools. At present a target date of 1st June has been set. The British Medical Association have already weighed in with their pennyworth. Essentially they support the union position that schools cannot be opened safely.

The following exchange between the CEO of Somerset County Council (Patrick Flaherty) and the NEU’s Robin Head, illustrates two things. Firstly that both sides recognise there are serious and substantial unresolved issues outstanding. And secondly there appears to be a gulf between the sides as to how to deal with them:

Dear colleagues,

Just a few days ago, the Prime Minister outlined his first steps to easing lockdown, and through the week we have gained more understanding of the guidance and how it applies to SCC. I thought it helpful to give you all some insight in how the Senior Leadership Team and our leading politicians are interpreting this guidance and what it means for us all. This message is split into three sections, short, medium and longer timescales.

So for short term over the coming weeks I want to make something absolutely clear to you all. Our buildings will remain shut to the public and importantly they will remain shut to staff too. There are a very small number of people who, with director sign off, are able to enter County Hall and other buildings. These people tend to be operations – for instance some ICT maintenance is needed – or for a specific need such has a lack of broadband connectivity at home. I want to stress these are rare exceptions.

When inside our buildings, I must insist that social distancing rules are firmly adhered to. I have become aware that this has not been the case on some occasions this week and this must stop. I have asked my directors to review all those accessing our buildings and to be able to explain the operational requirement for their presence. I hope this is clear.

So to the medium term. By this, I mean for as long as we can realistically predict social distancing requirements remaining in place. Due to the significant investment this Authority has made in ICT and flexible ways of working, you have achieved a remarkable amount over the coming weeks, not least 3000 working effectively – and safely – from home. We are currently looking at what social distancing rules would mean for the numbers of staff who could safely work from County Hall and other buildings – the suggestion is just 20% of staff could return into our biggest buildings. This clearly presents huge challenges to a return to just two months ago, and  I therefore see no rush to return to old ways of working.  I am of the view that for the coming months staff will continue to work from home.

My “ask” of you all is that you consider your circumstances, assess your new ways of working and speak to your managers. If you need ICT kit to support you, ask for it. If you need office furniture, we will do our best to supply it. If you have personal circumstances that mean an extended period of home working presents problems, please speak up.

Finally the longer term view. This is difficult as it depends on so many factors outside our immediate control. However having shown how brilliantly you all have adapted to new ways of working, my leadership team and I will be thinking long and hard about what transformation opportunities lie ahead, how we can stay closer to our communities, how we can make best use of emerging technologies and how we can stay safe. This may mean a new approach to our services and whether we operate from large office buildings. It is a long term view I’m keen to involve you all in and will be hosting a series of question and answer sessions online over the coming months. Please take the opportunity to ask questions and make points about how our Council might adapt and change over the coming months.

We have huge challenges fast approaching – not least seeing our primary schools return to normal lessons over the coming month, more easing of lockdown restrictions and more vital, intensive and hugely appreciated close work with our communities and those who depend on us. You have excelled throughout this crisis and I know you will continue to shine.

My thanks and the deep gratitude of all our politicians for your hard work, your deep commitment to the people of Somerset and to your determination to help those who need it.

Best wishes, Pat Flaherty, Chief Executive

Dear Patrick,

We as a union fully subscribe to your concerns about safe practice at work. Can you please then advise why Somerset has yet to prevent schools from reopening under the current conditions as have other authorities in the country? Education staff are in the top 10% nationally of occupations which have been affected by Covid 19 but are the only one of this group being asked to return to work without PPE or without proper social distancing in place. 60 education workers have died nationally. You have displayed, quite rightly, your concerns about other council workers below. Can you explain therefore why education workers in school should be any different? Further, in your leadership role, are you willing to take responsibility for the serious illness or death of any education worker in Somerset. Please reply to all as it’s important that all get the same message ahead of our schools JCNC tomorrow.

   Stay safe,

 Robin Head (National Executive member and local secretary – Somerset NEU)

One comment

  • I would love to see the garden of the Chief Executive of Somerset County Council. It must be full of roses with not a weed or pest in sight!

    Or perhaps he has special Chief Executive spectacles with rose-tinted lens?

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