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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.
- [definition of critical worker] This was reported by Prospect members to be very variable due initially to insufficient clarity from Government. The take-up of school places by both ‘critical worker’ children and ‘vulnerable’ children (with social worker or an Education Health and Care Plan [EHCP]) was and is much less than anticipated. Our members survey reflected the national data on take-up of places showing in the majority of responses from members that only 1-5% of pupils were attending school. There is no compulsion on parents to take up these places. Our members report that part of their reluctance may have been due to parents being fearful of their child mixing with critical workers’ children, and the potential spread of infection to their own children and their household. This is also being noticed in the parents’ reaction to the 1 June school re-opening announcements, where there are instances of some parents asking for their child not to be in a group with critical workers’ children.
- [capacity of Children’s Services] The vast majority of Prospect members are current or recently retired members of the Children’s Services workforce; those that have left local authority (LA) work have often moved into self-employment in the maintained or academy sector. As a result, they have experienced at first hand the consequences of the reduction in funding to LAs and the subsequent redundancies in the middle tier. This severely reduced local government capacity has resulted in the inability of this tier to support schools, settings and families and their children adequately, while still holding very important statutory duties, such as elective home education (EHE) visits, school places appeals and so on. During the coronavirus pandemic, there has been an increase in demand for education, health and care (EHC) needs assessments and until only recently no adjustment made to the statutory timescales to complete them, while those that provide advice are limited to historical or virtual assessments. Many other statutory duties performed by our members have had to be considerably reduced or curtailed (tracking children missing education (CME), work with children and young people with mental health concerns, and work with young carers). The consequences of this are that isolation and vulnerability increase and the achievement gap between vulnerable children and those without vulnerabilities will widen. We would suggest the creation of a task force, including space for school improvement and SEND professionals and their professional associations, as well as educational psychologists, in this national endeavour.
- [EY provider closure] Prospect members have reported that there is great and growing concern that this sector, which is almost wholly provided by private businesses and is dependent on operating at maximum capacity due to the funding mechanism, will close for good. This will occur in the context of the recent reduction in the number of Children’s Centres and hence the infrastructure of support systems that these provided to parents for networking, advice and guidance. Without such support there is significant increased risk to children, young people and their families. The importance of this early phase of education is understood by everyone, but the rush to return all of these children to their settings from 1st June without social distancing (because it is impossible to achieve) will put them and the adults that work with them – together with every household that all of these children and adults come from – at a perceived unacceptable risk.
- [cancelling formal exams] The actions taken by the Department for Education regarding exams were entirely understood but these actions highlighted to everybody involved how much more informed we might have been if exam modules and candidate coursework still existed, and was part of the final assessment process. This raises a line of enquiry we hope the Education Select Committee will pursue, and investigate whether the current examination and qualification system is fit for purpose as it disadvantages so many students, many of whom have SEND. The Committee will also be aware of the additional anxiety that current Year 11 and Year 13 students are experiencing because of the way their performance will be judged this year. Additionally, Prospect members report that current Year 10 and Year 12 students are very concerned that their future success in GCSEs and A levels is being negatively affected by the lack of effective education during lockdown prior to their exams next year. This has the potential to create an increase in mental health and well-being issues in these students.
- [supporting pupils and families] Our members are aware of how huge the variability of support has been from schools to families, with some overwhelmed and some feeling ignored. Whichever role our members hold in the Children’s’ Services workforce, they have all reported that their essential task during lockdown has been and is to maintain the communication with families. They have done this by phone, text and socially-distanced home visits. It is clear from our members that schools have been carrying the burden of initiating social care emergency response arrangements. Social care teams appear to be struggling because of decreased staffing levels and increased demands for help. The result is that families are not receiving the amount of support that staff would like to provide, such as crisis support to families, repairs to equipment allowing disability access, or adequate information and support for newly diagnosed children.
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.
- [financial implications] This is going to be an issue for a very long time. The whole basis of funding across all sectors and settings will need to be addressed, as well as the funding provided to LAs which provide an essential glue in the system through the middle tier. One member wrote ‘I would argue strongly that the highly marketised policy approach to public sector services has proved to be a real impediment to social justice, efficiency and best use of resources. There is an opportunity and a need to reflect on the positive community action which has been so evident and the mismatch between the public expression of appreciation for public service work and the government’s recent policies of austerity alongside a stance which consistently undermines and undervalues the skilled and dedicated workforce in our hospitals, care systems and schools’. There is a possibility that this could be interpreted as ‘They would say that wouldn’t they’, but we urge the Education Select Committee to look beyond what may appear to be a partial interest from our members and ask for the perceptions of others in the sector and end users of those services, whether they are schools, parents or children and young people. As part of this much-needed local government finance review, we further urge the Committee to explore with the Department for Education and LGA whether any work has been done to quantify fully the resource required for local authorities so that they are able to deliver all of the statutory duties required of them.
- [effect on disadvantaged groups] The Committee will not be surprised to hear from Prospect members that Edenred’s distribution system of free school meals vouchers has been disastrous and highly upsetting for families. Our members report parents who have had to wait on the phone for more than an hour; school staff working in the middle of the night because the system could not cope with the volume of requests for vouchers; vouchers arriving late or not at all; parents being embarrassed at supermarket checkouts because their vouchers appeared to be invalid or the checkout staff didn’t recognise them; and some families who were eligible not receiving them and no response from Edenred to queries about this.
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 actively – or 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.
- [contingency planning] The coronavirus pandemic has made everyone more familiar with online meetings and home working; many new personal skills have been learned; many new technical and resource solutions have been developed and implemented. Local Authorities are used to planning for single school emergencies such as fire, flood and disease outbreaks. However, the scale of sustained school closures in some parts of the country during lockdown has not been encountered before.
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 country. Most 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.