CIE0115

Written evidence submitted by Prospect Union

Prospect Union – Education and Children’s Services Group Submission

 

This response is from the Education and Children’s Services Group of Prospect submitted by Steve Thomas, National Secretary. Contact details are wakefield@prospect.org.uk, 01924 207890.

Prospect is a trade union over 140,000 largely professional members in the public and private sectors, and within that represents around 2,000 education non-teaching professionals in senior advisory and management roles.  These are made up of mostly Local Authority Officers with all members supporting the Education and Children’s Services functions (including ‘Soulbury officer’ roles) and giving advice to elected members, school leaders and/or parents and their children. This group of officers has recently been commended for their work, particularly during the Coronavirus pandemic, with Councillor Roy Perry from the Local Government Association (LGA) writing to the Secretary of State to do so.

This makes us uniquely well placed to reflect the views of the workforce in the middle tier of the education service.

In order to inform this submission we have conducted an extensive survey of members and also used a crowd sourcing thought exchange platform so that we could more accurately report the views of the membership with specific examples.  Three areas of consensus emerged; the highest was the concern about the safety of pupils and staff from risk of infection; the second was the lack of clear messages from Government, sufficient time, good planning and honesty while leaving schools to carry all the risks; and the third was the concern about the learning gaps either caused by or widened during the Coronavirus ‘lockdown’, and the resulting disparity between outcomes and life chances of children from more deprived backgrounds and their more affluent peers.

To aid the work of the Select Committee, our responses have been aligned to the order of the call for evidence.

There is one cohort of students which is of great concern. These are the students preparing to start an apprenticeship or work-based learning course who have already found their hopes dashed due to these opportunities evaporating. This is a cohort who we may find are the most significantly negatively affected during this pandemic and some intervention or support for them should be developed without delay.  They represent the first entrants to the workforce from the education sector post pandemic, and we must enable them to help the country return to good economic health.

There are, in addition, other groups which we would like to bring to the Committee’s attention. Our members are hearing about increased racial incidents against BAME children and young people who are being accused of spreading the virus because they are the group that is most negatively impacted by it.

Prospect members are very concerned that the gaps in achievement will have widened because some children and families are not digitally connected during the lockdown.  Consequently, these children have engaged less activelyor not at all – in the online offer from their school, and from the many other sources of learning materials available via the internet.  Additionally, the adults in these families have found it extremely difficult to access the many services which are now exclusively available online because of social distancing restrictions.  Prospect members welcome the government’s announcement of digital devices for some vulnerable groups but would wish to ask how effective the role out of this had been.  However, there are many more children not digitally connected than those who have a social worker, are care leavers or come from disadvantaged backgrounds in Year 10.  Prospect urges the Committee to press the Department for Education for further funding to ensure digital equality of opportunity for all children, rather than just some.

We wish to report the likelihood of a new disadvantaged group emerging, illustrated by this response from a Prospect member:the increasing number of children known to be experiencing mental-health and well-being issues; the additional fears in childhood of losing family members and close friends is comparable with the experience of refugee children and young people who exhibit trauma from loss of security and stability.  This impacts over the longer term on learning capacity and personal resilience. There were many similar responses within our survey.  Members have told us that school leaders are alert to this as pupils start to return to their education settings and are planning carefully for the potential difficulties in re-integrating pupils into what is now a well-forgotten routine.  Many of our members who work alongside school staff and those in children’s social care report that there is an expectation of increased referrals for early help and incidents of domestic violence and abuse. 

The work of contingency planning is well understood by Prospect members, some of whom are members of their Gold Command structure. We have examples from our members of exceptionally high professional planning and co-ordination being done in some Local Authorities, but sadly we also have examples from other members who work in the school sector whose queries and concerns about vulnerable children have been unanswered by their Local Authorities.

Our members report an absence or poor levels of involvement and support from some Regional School Commissioners and their Delivery Teams.  This points out the gap in capacity and professional expertise that now exists in some areas of the country, raising questions about the effectiveness of local co-ordination and planning of educational provision and Children’s Services statutory duties.  Very many of these statutory functions were not devolved to the academy sector.  The ability of local authorities to sustain these functions have been compromised by reduced funding over the years, with the consequence that a very variable response has been experienced by school leaders, children and young people and their families across the country.  In short, the playing field is not level.

Prospect members hope that central government now understands and captures the learning that has been gained as we emerge from this early phase of the coronavirus infection in this countryMost importantly, how vital local authorities are to the local planning, support and co-ordination of provision and services for children and young people, particularly so for vulnerable groups.  It is clearer now than ever that this requires appropriate resourcing from government, particularly if it is committed, as we believe it should be, to local delivery and accountability.

Finally, we end with an illustrative example of this complex and necessary work, undertaken by local authority officers in the middle tier.  Presently, up and down the country, local expertise is being harnessed as public health and education information is gathered, interpreted and used to guide elected members, school leaders, governors and trustees, as well as other stakeholders, in considering the detailed planning required to re-open schools to more children in a safe and cautious manner.

 

May 2020