Somerset Schools latest

The government in Westminster seems determined to impose a 1st June start date for our schools. Somerset County Council will obviously follow the instruction it is given. But Teaching unions are not happy about this.

The testing tracking and tracing policy appears to be central to schools having the confidence to open. Yet there seems to be only slow progress in getting that system up and running.

Meanwhile Somerset, or at least the South West region has the second highest reinfection rate in England. As we reported earlier this is .76. The ideal is to have a reinfection rate below 1. That will give some background to the correspondence which follows.

You may recall a couple of days ago CEO Pat Flaherty stating he would not yet let council workers go back as he feels it is unsafe. This is clearly commendable. Any boss standing up for the safety of his/her staff is going to win plaudits. But he seemed to be less willing to stand up to central government for teachers and pupils.

If it is unsafe for council workers at County Hall, why is it safer for schoolchildren and teachers?

The latest exchange between the CEO of Somerset County Council and Robin Head of the National Education Union suggest the issue is far from resolved. We offer the correspondence without comment on the rights or wrongs, but just so you can see the arguments being put. SCC’s CEo Pat Flaherty first:

Dear Mr Head,

Further to your emails earlier this week I would offer the following reflections. Throughout this crisis Somerset County Council has sought to protect the people of Somerset to the best of our abilities from the effects of Covid-19, placing premium on the wellbeing of our workforce and indeed all of those that we come in to contact with and serve, be they residents, businesses that support us or that we commission.  Throughout we have used our very best endeavours but of course, as with all organisations this is within the context of the national advice, guidance and in many instances governmental direction.  I believe that a good example of this is the support that we have offered to our network of care homes who have remained operational throughout but are very clearly on the front line of support and in some instances exposure.  It was therefore heartening to see a recent communication from the CEO of United Kingdom Homecare Association stating that “Somerset providers are lucky to have had so much support” when commenting on the efforts of the county council.  This is relevant and important because I have asked that my organisation seeks to emulate this level of support for our schools, regardless of whether they are county maintained, academy or private.  In short, if a school needs help we will be there.

I am aware of decisions made elsewhere in the country regarding the opening of schools and I acknowledge that this is a live debate that is causing concern to many within the sector, be they teachers, heads and governing bodies and indeed parents of potentially returning children.  We are therefore offering advice to schools who request it on a wide range of matters such as infection control, HR and other support functions, advice of social distancing and PPE to name but a few.  We ourselves are planning the transport elements of this central directive and are staying in close contact with both head teachers and unions to better plan for the beginning of June.  Indeed, we have this week agreed as a county council to provide every primary school in Somerset with access to an emergency supply of PPE to ensure that they can open and mitigate some of the concerns expressed by the teaching community in Somerset.

So, we have a governmental mandate to allow more primary years children to return from the beginning of June.  The safety of pupils and staff is paramount and our early years’ leaders and head teachers are carefully reviewing how this can be managed in the County, with our support.  Each educational setting is different, and we all need to support the professionalism and judgement of education leaders who will be making difficult decisions over the next few weeks and months, based on the context of their school, setting and community.  I have every confidence in our Headteachers and their ability to make the right decision for their school.  It is after all the Heads decision and will remain so as to how they open and when.  There are many profoundly powerful reasons to open more of the children should attend school, not least being matters of child protection and safeguarding.

However, I do wish to emphasise that our focus is one of pragmatism and support.  We would expect the wider school opening process to be informed by risk assessment and mitigation and we are supporting schools with regard to this.  We would and will support any school that needs to plan effectively for wider reopening.  Should we need to be flexible with regard to the absolute date of opening or the phasing of opening and indeed parental choice with regard to attendance then we will be.  There will be no coercion on my organisation’s part to push all schools to fully reopen on a given date but there is an expectation that all schools will be using their best endeavours to reopen along the lines of the national expectation and to do so in a safe and managed manner.

Finally Mr Head you ask if am willing to take responsibility for the serious illness or death of any education worker in Somerset.  Given our clear and ongoing support and desire to promote local decision making to suit local circumstances I find your question baffling and unhelpful.  You rightly wish to represent the interests of your colleagues and we absolutely stand with you in a commitment to promote a safe working environment.  Where this cannot be achieved we would urge every school leader to consider all options.  A collaborative approach between us all would therefore be a much more productive tone to strike in communications.  We remain fully committed to the safety of our entire school community.

Regards, Pat Flaherty

In reply Robin Head notes:

Dear Mr Flaherty,
       Thank you for email. The work of SCC is appreciated it is heartening to see that death rates in the County are very low in comparison to other South West jurisdictions. What worries us is the current R rate which appears to range from 0.6 to 1.2 in the South West potentially taking it over the Government’s on threshold of 1. In the light of this it is the NEUs considered opinion that Somerset should therefore be taking the simple step of saying that our schools should not open more widely for June the 1st but when it is practicable and safe to do so.

Other councils around the country have made the considered decision to make such a pronouncement and we see no reason therefore that Somerset cannot do the same. As you allude to, we DO work collaboratively with SCC via SSE and we have always applauded this initiative and, in my role as a National Executive Officer, have promoted this model around the country and find it slightly concerning that your comment at the end does not recognise this. Your colleagues in SSE and children’s Services will know me from the last 10 years to be highly collaborative, if sometimes robust on behalf of my members, and will point to an exceptionally low level of industrial strife because of this. Please therefore refrain from lecturing me on my tone.  

   These are potentially hugely demanding times and we all have significant roles to play. Our members are at risk in schools of potential infection, potential of carrying that infection home to loved ones and potentially seeing children carry home to their families. In addition many are suffering extreme anxiety about all of the above as are Headteachers school leaders to whom you refer. Instead of leaving decisions up to individual schools and their governing bodies we feel it would have been appropriate to have issued a statement explaining that schools should work to work with their staff to open more widely when they are ready with the caveat that June 1st may well be far too soon to have all the precautions and risk assessments, including our checklist, in place.

It is disappointing to us that, given all our positive engagement with SSE a statement was issued to parents without our input or knowledge. We have been having weekly catch up meeting with SSE and it was never mentioned.  Finally, I make no apologies for what you describe as an “baffling and unhelpful” question about accountability, I thought that’s what elected authorities were all about. It was, after all, a question not an accusation. What may be need to bring to your attention that as of last week 60 education staff in the country have died of Coronavirus.

All that we are asking is for a positive statement not referring to June 1st adding ONLY when…

Robin Head

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