Covid: Those who 'peddled lies' about 'lazy' teachers should be ashamed

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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“I won't quickly forget, nor will I fail to remind those in power, of the false and damaging narrative some of them used.”

The leader of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has delivered a scathing attack on politicians who sought to blame teachers in a bid to distract from government incompetence at the height of Covid-19 lockdowns last year.

Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary said the criticism of teachers and schools – especially during the crisis over free school meal provision – showed “poor judgement and poor leadership”.

It comes as the NAHT has called for a “more wide-ranging precautionary approach” to tackling Covid in schools this winter in light of the stark increase in case numbers and the numbers of staff and pupils self-isolating.

In particular it wants to see the sibling anomaly in the schools Covid guidance (DfE, 2021a) addressed – currently if a child tests positive for Covid, their siblings can continue to attend school, even if they share a bedroom.

Elsewhere this week, a coalition of five education unions has called for additional safety measures including social distancing, the re-introduction of bubbles, as well as face coverings at secondary level.

Peddling lies

Mr Whiteman’s attack came during his address to the NAHT’s annual conference in London last week. He said: “Some sought to paint a picture of lazy teachers and lazy school leaders in the middle of the pandemic. When actually you, and your colleagues, were working as hard as anybody else in the frontline. That was poor judgement. Poor leadership.

“Why was that picture created? Because it was a convenience. It was a tactic to distract attention from the failure of government to respond properly to the pandemic in education.”

Mr Whiteman said that school leaders and teachers were central to their communities during Covid lockdowns in spite of government failures to build contingency and delays in delivering crucial support.

He continued: “When I hear criticism that school leaders and teachers spent far too much time making sure the disadvantaged were fed; that too much time was spent ensuring that the vulnerable were safe; that too much time was spent being the last physical representation of the state for communities in a time of crisis – I say no, that was wrong. The people who peddled those lies should be ashamed.”

From the botched and excruciatingly slow roll-out of free laptops for disadvantaged pupils and the chaos over the FSM voucher roll-out, to reams of last-minute DfE guidance, often published late at night, and the now-infamous exams algorithm, the government’s handling of education during the pandemic has been poor.

However, Mr Whiteman sounded a conciliatory note with new education secretary Nadim Zahawi – who also addressed the event – adding: “Let’s hope those political failures are of the past. Let us hope that under new management the DfE will be able to persuade the rest of government that the future success of these nations rests on the shoulders of education.”

A range of precautionary measures

Nadim Zahawi and health secretary Sajid Javid have this week written a joint letter to parents of secondary school and college students emphasising the importance of vaccinations and regular testing.

It was their response to the latest Covid figures, which show that around 204,000 young people are at home for Covid-related reasons (1.7 per cent of teachers and school leaders and 1.5 per cent of teaching and support staff are also at home).

However, the NAHT says more need to be done and has called once again for the anomaly in the guidance regarding siblings to be addressed.

Mr Whiteman added: “The big issue schools are having at the moment is the number of children and staff off sick due to Covid and other illnesses. The government removed ‘bubbles’ and other isolation protocols to try and keep more children in school, but, as we predicted, this seems to be leading to a high number of pupils missing school as a result of becoming ill.

“Our members are particularly concerned about the current guidance relating to siblings and household contacts. At the moment, if a child tests positive for Covid, their siblings can continue to attend school, even if they share a bedroom, for example.

“Our members say this is actively contributing to the spread of Covid in schools. School leaders want the government to revisit its guidance, particularly when it comes to contact-tracing and self-isolation. No-one wants to see a child miss any time off school, but there is a real risk that the current policy is inadvertently leading to more children missing school in the long run.”

Given the slow take-up of vaccination among 12 to 15-year-olds (currently around nine per cent have been vaccinated), and the fact that children who have caught Covid cannot be vaccinated for 28 days, the NAHT is urging a bigger focus on ventilation and a reconsidering of the current guidance on close contact isolation.

Mr Whiteman added: “The government should adopt a precautionary principle. We can’t put all our eggs in one basket in the fight against Covid in schools. Testing is clearly important but it’s not a silver bullet. Investment and guidance needs to be there for all the different measures we have available to us: testing, vaccination, isolation, and ventilation. Only by pursuing a wide-ranging precautionary approach can we prevent illness from continuing to disrupt education this term.”

Additional safety measures

Many other countries in Europe that have kept in place proportionate mitigation measures in schools, such as face coverings and quarantine of close contacts while rolling out a vaccination programme and have not experienced the back-to-school surge in cases that we have seen in England.”

This is the message to Nadim Zahawi from a coalition of five unions who are calling for the re-introduction of safety measures in schools.

The five – GMB, NASUWT, National Education Union, UNISON and UNITE – wrote to the education secretary last week as well as to all local authorities and directors of public health asking them to consider measures in their local areas.

The unions point to measures now being re-adopted in several local authority areas in response to rising cases, including social distancing measures, re-introduction of bubbles, avoidance of large gatherings such as assemblies and meetings, and re-introduction of face coverings in secondary schools.

The letter states: “These are all important measures that we believe need to be implemented across all schools … Without a change of direction, we risk damaging the education of thousands of children at some point before Christmas. The health of some children, but particularly that of vulnerable staff, parents or grandparents, could be compromised.”

The unions contend that the thresholds in the DfE contingency framework for seeking advice following cases are set too high, “meaning that cases can already be spreading across a school before additional measures are considered”.

Indeed, last week the NAHT warned that a quarter of its members were already exceeding the Covid infection thresholds as identified in the government’s contingency guidance (DfE, 2021b).

Some councils have been using the freedoms they have under the DfE guidance to bring in additional mitigations in schools. Examples include Staffordshire County Council which is encouraging schools to consider measures such as stopping whole-school assemblies and re-introducing classroom bubbles and masks, the testing of close contacts and staggered start and finish times.

In Cumbria meanwhile schools have been told that siblings of children diagnosed with Covid should be kept at home until their test comes back negative.

  • DfE: Guidance: Actions for schools during the coronavirus outbreak, last updated September 27, 2021a:
  • DfE: Contingency framework: Education and childcare settings, August 2021b:

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