The coronavirus independent sector FAQs are intended to complement the advice on the main NEU coronavirus advice pages, by addressing some issues of particular concern to members in the independent sector. There is also coronavirus guidance for members working in boarding schools.
The NEU has comprehensive advice for all members, regardless of phase or sector, on the main coronavirus pages. Our aim is to ensure that arrangements are safe and appropriate, whether students and staff are working at home or at school.
Government requirements and measures are constantly changing, often with little notice. Always check the main pages for the latest developments.
Do Government regulations and NEU guidance only apply to state schools?
No. Government requirements, measures and guidance on coronavirus apply to all educational establishments, whether in the state or independent sector.
Much of the Department for Education (DfE) advice can be found here.
NEU guidance on coronavirus applies to all members, with minor exceptions.
Do the devolved governments agree on the same approach?
There are many instances where guidance in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland is the same or very similar, but there are often material differences.
For instance, following the third lockdown, England adopted a ‘big-bang’ approach to wider school reopening, with all ages returning on 8 March 2021, while the other nations adopted a phased/earlier return.
Regulations for the devolved governments are available at:
- Scottish Government coronavirus advice for schools
- Welsh Government coronavirus advice for schools
- Northern Ireland coronavirus advice for schools
What is required for Covid-19 testing of staff and pupils?
As with all schools, independent schools will be facilitating Lateral Flow Device [LFD] tests to help detect asymptomatic cases. See guidance on testing in secondary schools and testing in primary schools.
After the wider reopening of schools in England from 8 March 2021, there will be voluntary, twice-weekly, rapid home testing for all secondary and college pupils. For boarders, this will mean undertaking the test in their boarding house. There is no change to the system of testing for primary schools.
It is recommended that all staff in primary and secondary settings test twice a week, with home testing kits provided from the time they return to school.
Testing is voluntary.
Some schools have invested in their own rapid diagnostic test for Covid-19, such as the SAMBA II machine developed by the University of Cambridge.
Other medical steps being taken include taking antibody tests, conducting daily temperature checks for pupils and staff, and implementing a school-based track and trace system.
Should we be wearing face masks in school?
Following the wider reopening of schools from 8 March 2021, secondary school pupils and staff in England are advised to wear face coverings in classrooms and in all situations where social distancing cannot be maintained. These measures will be reviewed at Easter. Children of primary school age do not need to wear a face covering.
What is the current position on social distancing in schools?
The Government’s social distancing advice continues to be that everyone should stay two metres apart, where possible, or one metre where extra precautions are in place (such as wearing face coverings or increasing ventilation indoors).
Many independent schools are older buildings, with space issues. Judgement is needed. For instance, narrow corridors might require a one-way system to be put in place.
Should my independent sector employer be consulting staff and their unions?
Yes. Staff deliver the service. They are best placed to understand the practicalities of what might work and what will not. While there are regulations and guidance, some decisions come down to professional judgement.
It is also the health of staff that is potentially at risk.
Unions give staff a collective voice. The NEU draws on our experience, and knowledge of both the independent and state sectors. We provide the organisation, legal standing, advice and guidance to assist your discussions at school or college level.
Consultation is an ongoing process, informing regular reviews of practice and risk assessment.
It is to the school’s benefit to make use of staff and their union resources. Many independent schools do. If not, members should be confident to proactively suggest that they do.
What can I do to help make sure my employer is taking appropriate safety precautions?
The NEU has produced a wide range of advice and guidance on coronavirus for all sectors, for the benefit of members, students, their families, and schools.
If you are concerned about measures that are being taken, or not being taken, then you should consult the Government advice and NEU guidance.
- Talk to fellow NEU members and raise the issue collectively.
- Join one of our local NEU networks. Find out what is being done in local and comparable schools. It is often effective to say, “this is how they do it at X school”.
- Share the guidance and recommendations with school management. Compare them to your school risk assessment. You might also find it helpful to look at the NEU guidance on what a risk assessment should look like.
We know that many independent schools have welcomed and are using the NEU checklists, guidance, and recommendations.
What can I do if school leadership is not taking adequate precautions to protect staff and will not listen?
If you and other members have concerns around safety and the growing trend of increased workload because of coronavirus, first try to discuss them collectively.
You can seek support from your NEU district, which is supported by local officers, regional offices, and regional members of the NEU's National Council independent sector. Find your NEU district here.
What about boarding school safety?
The NEU is particularly concerned by the enhanced exposure to potential risk for our members working in boarding schools, for the pupils, and their families.
There is specific NEU guidance on coronavirus for members working in boarding schools.
In respect of practical application and risk assessment, the NEU ensured that key concerns of our boarding school members were addressed in the joint union checklist for the safe reopening in September 2020. While circumstances have changed since then, many of the points remain relevant. It is a helpful supplement to the current guidance.
We also recommend reading the guidance issued by the Boarding School Association, including its charter and checklist.
What is going on in other independent schools and colleges?
The annual NEU independent sector pay and conditions survey is an authoritative snapshot of what is going on in the sector.
The 2020 survey was conducted in November, with 1,500 NEU members taking part. The survey featured a section on coronavirus. The findings were presented at the NEU independent sector conference in November.
Members acknowledged the great efforts that their school management teams were making in very difficult circumstances. However, there are areas of concern.
Among other things, it revealed approval rates for the following:
- additional cleaning: 83 per cent
- personal protective equipment: 58 per cent
- alerting all staff when pupils or staff are sent home on showing coronavirus symptoms: 42 per cent
- adequate provision for clinically extremely vulnerable staff to work from home: 39 per cent.
For further detail go to the link above and/or read the report in the Spring 2021 edition of Independent Insight.
My independent school says that, in addition to teaching my normal classes now we are back in school, we will also be expected to continue to offer remote learning to pupils off sick. Is this reasonable?
NEU believes that, in general, once a school has returned to normal teaching in the classroom it is not proportionate to continue to offer remote teaching for a few pupils off sick. Parental expectation needs to be managed and educational provision balanced with staff wellbeing.
If the school wishes to extend its offer, there should be adequate additional resources provided and staff agreement. It is not reasonable or acceptable to expect a teacher to do significant additional work without adjustment to their workload. It is the role of management to prioritise. If something is deemed to be a priority, then something else must be taken away.
The enforced necessity of teaching online during the lockdown has produced valuable resources and broadened the horizons for learning.
However, what was done at speed, in a time of emergency, needs to be reflected on before being adopted or integrated as a ‘new normal’. There should be careful consideration of all the aspects of remote learning, including time to plan and prepare, consideration of good practice and staff and pupil wellbeing. There should be a discussion with the teaching staff and any support staff involved in the provision.
Does the NEU provide guidance on remote learning?
Amongst other things, the NEU has developed a Remote Education Hub to support you and your colleagues in delivering effective remote learning. It includes tips for pedagogical approaches you can use in remote education, plus guidance on other aspects of teaching remotely, such as workload and safety considerations.
For further information, see NEU guidance on remote learning.
My school has said we need to do extra work to ‘catch-up’ for the lockdown. Is this reasonable?
While some degree of flexibility of work is reasonable, it is not reasonable for an employer to expect staff to undertake significant additional work, unless by agreement and paid.
Most support staff have set hours and provision for overtime pay. Outside of the usual give and take of any job, any substantial addition work or responsibility should be by agreement and paid. If not, then you should work your set hours.
Almost uniquely, teachers in independent schools do not have set hours and there is an expectation and commitment to extra-curricular provision.
In addition to your contractual rights, and custom and practice, the Government sets down minimum legal requirements on working hours and rest breaks. The NEU has provided specific guidance on the working time regulations as they apply in the independent sector.
Has the union engaged directly with independent school heads and leaders?
Yes. At the start of January 2021, before the third national lockdown, we wrote to heads to say that we did not think schools could safely open. Many heads agreed and the Government subsequently acted.
At the end of November/beginning of December 2020, we wrote to all heads, including independent sector heads, and the Government, to let them know that we think it is not safe to expect clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) staff to work in school or college and that instead they should continue work from home. See our advice for the clinically vulnerable.
In September 2020, the NEU wrote to all independent school leaders to emphasise the importance of individual risk assessment.
My school says that pay is frozen due to coronavirus. Is this right?
Despite the financial impact, many employers can still afford pay increases. For many years, fee increases have consistently outstripped both inflation and wages. The fat years should be used to offset the lean.
First and foremost, you need to check your contract of employment and pay policy. Pay increases – whether cost of living or pay progression – may be a contractual entitlement.
Remember that a pay freeze is a pay cut in real terms. If it is unavoidable then members should have thoroughly examined the finances and be satisfied that there really is no alternative.
Did state sector colleagues get a pay rise?
Yes. For the academic year 2020/21, in England, starting teacher pay increased by 5.5 per cent, with increases of 4.95-3.3 per cent on M2-M5 and 2.75 per cent for all other teachers and TLR and SEN allowances.
State school support staff received 2.75 per cent in April 2020. Staff with less than five years’ service also received an additional day of annual leave.
In January 2021, sixth form college teachers were awarded an increase of 2 per cent from September 2020 and 3.25 per cent from 1 May 2021. Sixth form college support staff received 2.5 per cent last year.
What can I do to get a pay rise?
There are three simple things that you can do to influence your pay for 2021/22:
- Read the NEU guidance on collective bargaining in the independent sector.
- Share the guidance with NEU colleagues and others.
- Put in a pay claim for September 2021 – now. Budgets take shape from February.
What has happened to the furlough scheme?
The NEU, as part of the TUC, lobbied for financial support for business, but especially the protection of jobs. Since March 2020, more than nine million workers in the UK have had 80 per cent of their wages, up to a cap of £2,500 per month, subsidised by the state. The Job Retention Scheme enabled staff to be furloughed – not working but kept on the payroll. The NEU called on independent sector employers to top up the remaining 20 per cent of pay, as many good employers did.
The scheme was originally intended to end on 31 October 2020. However, the Government extended the furlough scheme until the end of March 2021. It is expected to be extended until July 2021.
Is there any other financial help for independent schools?
Yes. Other provisions include support for businesses that pay business rates, the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, and statutory sick pay relief for small and medium-sized enterprises.
What does all this mean for independent school finances?
Undoubtedly, independent school finances will have taken a taken a big hit.
The Job Retention Scheme will be a lifesaver for many jobs and some independent schools themselves. However, the furlough money is not a silver bullet. It will not fully offset the loss in fee income, but it will substantially mitigate it. And, unlike many other private businesses, schools’ income continues. Fees have been paid, albeit with partial rebates.
However, there will be some job losses. The NEU will robustly defend our members’ interests.
Is coronavirus a Teachers’ Pension Scheme get-out-of-jail-free card?
No. The Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS) is a significant part of a teacher’s remuneration and their contractual conditions. For many NEU members, not being in the TPS is a deal breaker.
Coronavirus is not a TPS get-out-of-jail-free card. Members need to be ready to push back. Make the necessary preparations now. You need to be ready to make robust collective representations, as the NEU, to protect this fundamental part of your salary package.
To date, NEU members have been successful in more than 50 TPS consultations in independent schools. Members will continue to be successful. For further information, see Protecting independent school teachers’ pensions.
My employer has proposed that all staff voluntarily take a pay cut of 15 per cent
NEU acknowledges that many schools are facing unprecedented challenges and difficulties because of the current emergency.
However, the NEU recommends that you do not agree to detrimental changes to your contract without union advice, full disclosure of information and only if you are satisfied there is no alternative.
Members need to consider that if the employer is proposing such an extraordinary cut to your pay, it might be a sign that it is already too late.
The NEU calls upon any employer making such proposals to negotiate with the union in a full and frank discussion of the business’ finances and possible alternatives.
What can I do to really make my voice heard?
Act collectively with other NEU members. As appropriate, work with colleagues in other unions.
NEU recommends that all members consider strengthening their collective voice by securing your statutory right to collective trade union recognition. You can read more here about recognition in the independent sector.
Recognised or not, NEU members should consider submitting a pay claim. Bear in mind that the budget-setting process for the next financial year begins in February.
For general advice on pay negotiation see the NEU briefing on collective bargaining in the independent sector, updated for September 2020.
What can we do now?
Make sure your colleagues – new starters and old stagers – have union protection. If not in a union, ask them to join the NEU. This also enhances your collective NEU voice. It is easy to join NEU online.
If your school or college doesn’t have an NEU rep, then volunteer.
If you would like to speak to an organiser about the rep role, or getting things organised in your workplace, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are there local NEU independent school rep networks I can join?
NEU independent school reps in a few areas have set up email groups with fellow reps from local, or comparable, schools. These networks enable members to share information, discuss policy and practice, and support each other.
If you are the NEU workplace rep and would like to set up a rep network, then please contact email@example.com and provide the names of the schools you are interested in. With the consent of those involved, the NEU can put you in contact with other reps.
How can I get involved in NEU activity in my region?
Some areas have NEU WhatsApp groups that are open to all independent sector members in that area. Other activities might be arranged by your regional rep on the NEU National Council independent sector. Contact them and say that you would like to be involved.