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.

Government requirements and measures are constantly changing, often with little notice. Always check the main NEU coronavirus pages for the latest developments.

What is the current position on Covid-19 safety measures?

From 16 July 2021, the requirements for schools to maintain social distancing, operate school “bubbles” and require face masks have ended.  The NEU believes that Governments have acted hastily in rescinding much of the mandatory requirements. There is cause for optimism on the basis that the pandemic appears to be on the wane and due to the success of the vaccine programme. We think that schools should take a precautionary approach and many of the sensible measures taken during the pandemic should continue, where appropriate. The risk has not gone away.

What can I do to help make sure my employer is taking appropriate safety precautions?

We know that many independent schools have welcomed and are using the NEU checklists, guidance, and recommendations.

If the Government thinks it ok to dispense with safety measures, why should my independent school think otherwise?

An employer has a duty of care to safeguard their employees’ health and safety. Educational establishments have a duty of care to the pupils. Schools should take all necessary measures to minimise the risk of coronavirus to staff and pupils and visitors.

Independent schools also need to bear in mind commercial imperatives, including reputation and parental trust.

What do parents think?

There is a variety of views, but considerable anxiety remains that must be addressed.

Confidence amongst staff, pupils, and their parents here and abroad needs to be rebuilt.

So, what’s the view from abroad on coronavirus in the UK?

Not so rosy. There is concern about the early inaction of the Government and new variants.

Countries providing a significant proportion of overseas boarders, such as China, including Hong Kong, and Germany have strong measures affecting travel to and from the UK.

At the time of writing in August 2021, direct flights between the UK and China and Hong King are suspended, with the UK being classified as "extremely high-risk". Germany has warned against non-essential travel to the UK, as an area with a particularly high infection risk and virus variants.

How has this impacted on overseas boarders?

According to the Independent School Council Census in January 2021, the number of non-British pupils with parents overseas, is down 16% from the year before.

And overall?

The Independent School Council report pupil numbers have reduced by 1.3% overall. Though, it should be borne in mind that the total number of pupils, 532,237 is the third highest ever recorded by the ISC.

What does my independent school need to do?

Independent schools need to take, and to be seen taking, robust measures to reassure parents. Trust and confidence is paramount in any school. And for fee-paying schools it is a commercial imperative.

What are independent schools doing?

Many independent schools share the NEU precautionary view. Risk assessments and measures taken to minimise the threat of infection are being reviewed. It is likely that aspects will remain in place.

Practical measures taken to look at capacity and circulation may stay in place. Some schools have been able to effectively redeploy new areas of space for pupil teaching and recreation.

Timetabling and designated areas for certain cohorts of pupils helps.

Enhanced cleaning, improved ventilation, and hygiene regimes are likely to remain in place.

Should my independent sector employer be consulting staff and their unions?

Yes. The health of staff that is potentially at risk.

Staff deliver the service. They are best placed to understand the practicalities of what might work and what will not. Some decisions come down to professional judgement.

The NEU give staff in the independent sector a strong collective voice. We have valuable experience in both the independent and state sectors. We provide the organisation, legal standing, and practical guidance to assist your discussions at school or college level.

In my school staff were consulted on the original risk assessments but not since. Is this right?

No. 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 should my school be doing for staff who are at greater risk?

Joint union advice on medically vulnerable and higher risk groups

Are pupils legally required to self-isolate?

From 16th August 2021 pupils aged under 18 are no longer legally required to self-isolate if they are a close contact of someone who tests positive. Instead, they are advised to take a PCR test and only self-isolate if positive.

What can I do if school leadership is not taking adequate precautions to protect staff?

First, raise the issues whether safety, workload or pay, collectively as the NEU. Consider putting concerns in writing.

Second, if staff concerns are not adequately addressed, seek advice and support from the union. Contact your NEU Regional Office or District.

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.

We also recommend Boarding School Association guidance, including its charter and checklist.

My school says that, in addition to teaching my normal classes, 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 workload and wellbeing.

What is a reasonable expectation if my school wishes to extend the offer to online teaching?

If the school wishes to extend its offer, there should be adequate additional resources provided and staff agreement.

Without additional resources, it is the role of management to prioritise. If something is deemed to be a priority, then something else must be taken away.

It is not reasonable, or acceptable, to expect a teacher to do significant additional work without adjustment to their workload.

We learnt some valuable lessons in the lockdown, how might we employ them?

The enforced necessity of teaching online during the lockdown has produced valuable resources and broadened the horizons for learning. Staff rose magnificently to the challenge.

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.

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 overtime pay. Beyond the usual give and take, any substantial addition work should be by agreement and paid. If not, then you should work your usual hours.

Almost uniquely, teachers in independent schools do not have set hours and there is an expectation and commitment to extra-curricular provision. This must be reasonable to both parties.

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 and the independent sector.

I work in a boarding house, should there be extra consideration of the risks?

Yes, schools should take appropriate measures to ensure the safety of staff that have regular close contact with pupils whether house parents, nurse, cleaners, or those taking care of the laundry.

This might include individual risk assessment and the provision of Personal Protective Equipment.

If I am off work due to coronavirus, shouldn’t I be paid in full?

Yes. A good sick pay policy is not just a term and condition of employment but an important measure to ensure that sick staff do not risk their own, and others, health working while sick.

In addition, there are cases where staff are suffering from long Covid. The NEU believes that where there is reasonable GP evidence that Covid-19 is work related, sick pay should be paid at full pay.

The pandemic has demonstrated staff commitment to the pupils and the schools. An area where many independent schools often fall short of the state sector is the provision of sick leave and pay.

Now is the time for NEU members to lobby their employers to review and improve their sick leave and pay policy. Compare your school policy to state teachers’ sick pay and sick leave entitlement.

What has happened to the furlough scheme?

The job retention, aka furlough, scheme ceased on the 30 September 2021.

The NEU congratulates the Government on the furlough scheme.

As part of the TUC, NEU lobbied for financial support for business, but especially the protection of jobs. Since March 2020, more than eleven million workers in the UK have had their wages subsidised by the state. It has been a lifesaver for many jobs and businesses, including independent schools.

What does all this mean for my school’s finances?

Most independent school finances remain robust. Many have been able to reward staff with a pay rise in September 2021 for their herculean efforts to keep the show on the road.

Though, many schools have suffered some financial loss. And a few schools have been seriously impacted, especially on the boarding side.

The job retention scheme has been a lifesaver for many jobs and some independent schools themselves. Though, not a silver bullet, it helped mitigate the loss in fee income. And, unlike many other businesses, schools’ income continued. Fees have been paid, albeit with partial rebates.

Is Covid-19 a Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS) get-out-of-jail-free card?

No. The 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 remuneration.

To date, NEU members have been successful in more than 60 TPS consultations in independent schools. Members will continue to be successful.  For further information, see Protecting independent schoolteachers’ pensions.

Do I have to agree to my employer’s proposal that all staff voluntarily take a pay cut of 15%?

The NEU acknowledges that a few schools face serious financial challenge.

However, you should 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 extraordinary measures as cutting 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.

Who should I contact if I have an individual problem?

For specific advice, contact the NEU Adviceline on 0345 811 8111 or adviceline@neu.org.uk.     

What can I do to really make my voice heard?

Act collectively with other NEU members. As appropriate, work with colleagues in other unions.

The union recommends that all members consider strengthening their collective voice by securing your statutory right to collective trade union recognition.

Tell me one simple thing I could do to make a difference?

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 I am willing to make a commitment to my colleagues, how can I make a difference?

Offer to actively support your school NEU rep. Offer to join your workplace NEU rep team.

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 organising@neu.org.uk

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.

Where can I find the latest Government coronavirus advice for schools?