The coronavirus pandemic has contributed to specific issues in special schools and for SEND in mainstream schools.
Where to find Government and NHS advice
The latest NHS advice on Coronavirus and the DFE guidance about the Coronavirus for educational settings are both being updated regularly. The NEU advises all members and all school leaders to read and follow the latest advice but reserves the right to give our own different advice if we disagree with the DfE’s advice on any matter. In Wales, read the advice from Public Health Wales and the Wales Government. In Northern Ireland, read the advice from the Northern Ireland Department of Education, Education Authority and the Public Health Agency. In Scotland, refer to the Education Institute of Scotland website in line with our partnership arrangement with EIS.
Our frequently asked questions below cover:
Safety in schools
What is the NEU position on school closures?
Schools in England and Wales have moved to remote learning for all students other than children of key workers and vulnerable students, until the February half term in England and at least 18 January in Wales. Early years settings such as nursery schools are expected to remain open. You can read the NEU’s full advice for this period here.
What precautions need to be taken to ensure schools and colleges are safe?
The NEU is clear that schools and colleges must be safe and education staff must not be put at risk, for example because the pupils cannot socially distance. If your school remains overcrowded, without the ability for students and staff to socially distance, then the NEU escalation guidance should be used.
Employers and managers should revise their risk assessments and update them as necessary, in consultation with union representatives, reviewing policies and procedures, considering additional safety measures, and communicating information to staff, students and parents as matters continue to develop. All safety protocols, rotas and changes to normal duties should be negotiated with you rather than imposed on you.
What advice is available on safety matters?
The NEU’s joint union checklist will assist you in discussing and agreeing plans with your employer. The checklist sets out the measures which each employer should have considered. You can continue to use the checklist to ensure measures continue to be followed. As the science develops, the checklist will be kept under review and may be revised.
The NEU agreed joint advice to help colleges prepare for full education from September and updated advice is being discussed with the other FE unions and the Association of Colleges.
Can we refuse to work in school on health & safety grounds and will the law protect us?
Employers are legally required to ensure employee safety. The law ("Section 44") provides protection to employees individually if they leave or refuse to enter the workplace in circumstances which they reasonably believe to represent 'serious and imminent danger'. However, the NEU is currently advising members who have concerns about safety at the workplace to use the NEU escalation guidance to raise concerns and seek NEU support locally.
Who should be at school?
Only staff working directly with students or key to opening, and cleaning, should be on the school site. Teachers should not be asked to be on site if they are not teaching pupils. Staff should not be asked to attend full staff meetings, or to clean cupboards, or take down displays for example because this increases their exposure to the virus and endangers the NHS and will not help tackle increases in infection rates.
Will there be rota working?
While schools and colleges are open for some students only, we expect arrangements such as a rota system to be implemented where necessary to protect staff and students alike by reducing the numbers on site.
I work in Early Years – what’s my position?
Currently, these settings remain fully open. We know this puts the sector in a difficult position, having to balance the safety of staff and children with the fact that funding is dependent on nurseries being open and continuing to admit children. We are making urgent representations to Government. We also remain committed to ensuring your safety at work - ensure that your employer updates its risk assessment and safety measures, and if you think that matters are not safe, use the NEU escalation guidance to raise concerns and seek NEU support locally.
I am in a vulnerable category - should I be in school?
Read the NEU advice on vulnerable and higher risk members and contact your employer to discuss safety measures for you personally. The NEU advises in particular that all staff classed as clinically extremely vulnerable, and all women in the third trimester of pregnancy, should be permitted to work at home. If you have a condition not mentioned in Government guidance, discuss the matter with your GP or specialist then with your head teacher. Don't be afraid to raise concerns with your head teacher. The NEU will support all members who have concerns about their position.
What about Black staff?
The NEU shares the concerns of Black members about their particular vulnerability as outlined in this NEU briefing. We have answers to frequently asked questions specific to Black educators. The NEU’s advice for members in higher risk groups outlines the support which the NEU will offer.
What about staff who live too far from school to commute except by public transport?
There is an additional risk posed by travelling on public transport (in particular for lengthy journeys or ones involving changes and this should be taken into acount in risk assessments and in decisions on staff attendance.
What should arrangements for teaching and learning look like?
Read the NEU’s advice on supporting learning at this time of transition.
What is the NEU advice on social distancing?
Arrangements for minimising contact and maintaining social distancing are of vital importance for staff and student safety. The overarching principle is to minimise contacts and mixing by keeping groups separate (the ‘bubble’ approach) and maintain social distance between individuals where possible. The NEU’s joint union checklist sets out various matters which employers should demonstrate they have considered in establishing their arrangements for social distancing (including our recommended minimum requirements) and for minimising contacts and mixing.
What about the size of groups and bubbles?
The point of a bubble is to minimise the risk of infection by minimising contact and mixing at all times and to allow easier identification of contacts. For this to work, groups need to be as consistent and as small as possible and staff should not work across bubbles. The NEU opposes the DFE advice that bubbles can potentially be as large as entire year groups and that staff can move between classes and year groups as necessary. During the period of lockdown and partial school closure, risk assessments should be reviewed to reflect the known greater transmissibility of the new variant and consideration of group size is part of this. The advice in the NEU’s joint union checklist is aimed at ensuring that employers do not adopt large scale group sizes and movement but instead set out measures for social distancing and maintenance of smaller groups.
What about arrival, departure and movement around the school?
Social distancing is important all around the school, not just in classrooms. The NEU has posed a series of questions in our joint union checklist so that staff and pupils can move safely through corridors, up and down stairs and around shared parts of the premises.
Can teachers be asked to do things which fall outside their normal duties?
No, your employer cannot force you to carry out duties that are clearly outside the scope of your role as a teacher. Staff should only be present in schools to supervise students and carry out essential duties. If you are not needed for those purposes, you should not be in school.
Do you have to go to another school to work if you are asked?
If you are fit to work and you are not self-isolating, you may be directed by your employer to work in another location but your employer must make sure that all times that this request is reasonable, practical and your wellbeing/health are not at risk.
What about ensuring safety when working at home?
See the advice here.
What is the NEU position on face masks as PPE and on wearing of face coverings?
The NEU believes that schools should not simply comply with DFE advice but go further in requiring them to be worn at all times in the classroom and elsewhere by staff and students in secondary schools and colleges and by staff in other settings and permit all staff and students to wear them at all times if they wish. Full details are available here.
What if staff or students develop coronavirus or may have been exposed to coronavirus?
The procedure to be followed should be set out in the school’s plans. This should include arrangements for ensuring that staff and students suffering symptoms leave the premises safely, ensuring it is safe for them to return, testing and tracing for contacts, and potential closure in the event of a wider outbreak.
What about priority for education staff in receiving the Covid-19 vaccine?
The NEU recognises that the first priority of the vaccination programme must be to protect those most at risk. Some school staff will be eligible for vaccination as part of phase 1 of the current prioritisation set out by the Government but education staff should be considered for occupational prioritisation as well as NHS and care staff.
What is the NEU response to the mass testing programme?
To read the NEU’s joint statement with other organisations in response to DfE's rushed rollout of mass testing in schools from January, click here. More detailed advice on the programme is available here.
What is the position with regard to using and responding to the NHS Test & Trace app?
The DFE advice for schools and colleges instructs them to engage with the Test & Trace process. The NEU advises all members to install the app and comply with the process. Schools should not instruct staff to uninstall, disable or ignore contacts from the app. Staff who receive a notification to self-isolate should inform the appropriate person at work and then comply with that instruction. Schools should have processes in place, and make them known to staff, in relation to students' use of the app.
What should schools and colleges tell parents and staff in the event of a confirmed or suspected case of infection?
Workload and working entitlements in work or at home
How can we manage workload sustainably and avoid excessive workload?
These are not normal times. This is not education as usual. Running a COVID secure school or college is workload intensive, requiring teachers, support staff and leaders to do extra, time-consuming work. These extra demands cannot be added on to ‘workload as usual’. If we are going to keep schools and colleges open and COVID secure, as well as continuing to provide high quality teaching which responds to students’ learning loss and wellbeing needs, we need to make sure that teachers and support staff are not exhausted. Read the NEU’s advice on managing and reducing workload during Covid-19 here.
What NEU support is available for tackling workload problems during Covid-19?
The NEU's support for you during this period, in addressing workload problems as well as safety problems, is set out on our reps' advice page. Addressing workload is a key part of our joint union checklist, and any issues and problems with workload should be treated as breaches of the checklist and raised using the escalation procedure set out on the reps advice page.
What about pay progression, appraisal and performance management?
The NEU is calling to all employers to agree that all eligible staff should receive pay progression this year automatically. Decisions cannot realistically be taken this year by reference to objectives set before the crisis. This should be reflected both in any appraisal or performance managements discussions reviewing the 2019-20 academic year and in discussions looking forward to 2020-21. Please see here for more details.
What can I do to ensure objectives set for me this year are reasonable?
Objectives must be SMART, fair and capable of being achieved, and objective-setting must take account of the pandemic. It would be unfair to set exam-related objectives, while expectations covered by other objectives must be capable of being achieved. The NEU will expect appraisal to be a positive process, with reviews deemed to be successful unless significant concerns have been raised, and pay progression the norm.
Pay and sick pay when you cannot attend work
Will I get full pay if I need to continue working at home?
Yes – if you are working at home with the employer’s agreement, then you will get full pay.
What if I can’t go into school due to being vulnerable or due to living with or caring for a vulnerable person?
If you are fit to work, you should discuss with your school the safety measures that need to be in place for you, which in some cases will include allowing you to continue to work at home. The NEU will support members in order to ensure their position is fully considered by their employer.
What if I am off sick?
Your sick pay entitlements will be set out in your contract. The NEU will expect all employers to continue to act in line with the current ACAS advice and provide full pay for all sickness absence, regardless of employees’ actual entitlement, and disregard such absence for the purpose of sickness absence management. Otherwise, employees who are unwell with COVID-19 symptoms may simply try to come into work, increasing the risk of transmission.
What if I am self-isolating in line with NHS advice?
The NEU expects all employers to act in line with ACAS advice and provide full pay for all such absence, regardless of contractual entitlements. This applies whether you are self-isolating as a precaution due to symptoms or self-isolating as a result of having been contacted by the NHS Test & Trace Service. Assuming you are fit to work, you should arrange with your employer what work you can do while at home.
Do I need to provide a sick note if I am sick or have to self-isolate?
Schools are not obliged to ask for medical certification for sickness absence, even after the first seven days during which employees can self-certify, and we hope that schools will not feel that they need to request any evidence. If they do, you can obtain an “isolation note” from 111.nhs.uk which satisfies this requirement for yourself or someone else by answering a few short questions. The NHS advice is that if you are well enough to work from home, you should not need to provide such a note.
What about notifying fitness to return from sick leave?
When you are fit to return to work, notify your employer as normal then discuss whether you will be working at home or on a rota basis in school and at home.
What advice does the NEU offer on "Long COVID"?
Long COVID (or post-COVID syndrome) involves ongoing debilitating symptoms caused by the body’s response to the virus, causing absence from work which may be long-term, or frequent short-term instances. Members should seek NEU advice on their position, in particular where they are unable to attend work. Most sick pay schemes provide that absences due to infectious illness contracted at work should not count against normal entitlement or for absence management purposes. It is not appropriate for members with this condition to be subject to absence monitoring procedures, and it may be capable, at least in some cases, of coming within the Equality Act 2010 definition of "disability" requiring reasonable adjustments.
What if I have to quarantine after returning from a holiday abroad?
The NEU does not expect any member to be asked to cancel holidays booked before the announcement of quarantine requirements. You should seek your head teacher’s agreement that, if a quarantine requirement applies, you will be permitted to work at home. Any direction to work at school in breach of quarantine would be unreasonable and invalid. You will be available for work during quarantine and should not be asked to agree to take unpaid leave or "make up time" at another date. The NEU does not accept that employers are necessarily permitted to deduct pay for non-attendance at the workplace in these circumstances and will vigorously challenge any such deductions on your behalf.
If you are have not booked a holiday, the NEU advises you not to do so without first securing agreement that you can work at home during any quarantine following your return. It is more difficult to offer protection if you have booked a holiday after the announcement of quarantine requirements and without seeking such agreement.
The provisions of the Burgundy Book and Green Book agreements do not contain provisions which conclusively cover this situation where employees are not themselves sick or living with someone who is sick. The above approach, however, can be applied to all employment and all contractual working time arrangements.
Workload and working time
I am a classroom teacher employed on School Teachers Pay & Conditions Document terms and conditions. What are the limits on my contracted hours?
Legally you cannot be directed to work on more than 195 days a year or for more than 1,265 hours of directed time a year (for part-time teachers, pro rata arrangements apply.) This has not changed due to the current situation. All school term days still count as working days, even if the school was closed, as teachers were nevertheless available for work and working at home. You should not accept any suggestion that school closures or partial closures mean that you can be expected to “make up” some of this time by working longer than normal hours or for additional days. NEU general advice on working time is available here.
As a support staff member, I am being asked to work extra hours beyond my contractual working hours. What are my rights?
Support Staff members employed on Green Book terms & conditions cannot be required to work more than their contracted hours. If asked to work additional hours, you have a right to refuse. If you agree to work additional hours, you should be compensated for this. Your contract of employment or staff handbook should provide details about the additional rates of pay you should expect to receive for overtime worked.
Support staff not employed on Green Book terms (e.g. in the independent sector) will usually still have set hours and pay rates. You should not be regularly expected to work above and beyond those hours. Where there is agreement to do so, additional hours should be paid or there should be flexibility to take some time back. Further advice for support staff is here.
I teach in an independent school and do not have defined working hours in my contract. I am being expected to work longer than normally required – what are my rights?
Many teachers working in the independent sector do not have defined daily or weekly hours of work, although school holiday dates are usually defined. Contracts are often vague or contain catch-all phrases such as “whatever hours are considered reasonable for carrying out your duties.” There is also likely to be an unwritten expectation that teaching staff will take part in extra-curricular activities outside the teaching day.
A school cannot unreasonably increase hours of work. Your working time and its relationship to your pay is the core of a contract of employment. Some minor variation to accommodate business needs is acceptable but major change without consultation and agreement is not. There are also protections against working excessive hours in the Working Time Regulations. You should seek NEU support if you feel that you are being treated unreasonably. Further information for independent sector teachers can be found here.
I work in the FE Sector. I have agreed to work additional contact hours with my students. What are my rights?
If you are in agreement and happy to increase your contact hours, we would expect you to receive additional pay for the additional workload based on the model followed for your educational establishment. You should check your contract of employment or staff handbook to see how overtime is calculated and what the safeguards for working above your weekly hours are (taking into account your annual planned hours). The NEU expects members to receive sufficient planning and preparation time to reflect any change to the contact time required of them. If your college is unwilling to support, you for the additional time around planning and preparation then you have the right to refuse. To find out more, go here.
I am a school leader - what are my rights regarding my working hours?
The School Teachers Pay and Conditions Document (STPCD) provides no specified limits on school leaders’ working time but the STPCD does stipulate that employers must have regard to the need for a satisfactory work/life balance. Leaders employed on separate contractual arrangements may have a wide variety of contractual terms and obligations.
All employers, however, must adhere to the provisions of the Working Time Regulations which call for a maximum working week of 48 hours averaged over 17 weeks (or 26 weeks for residential settings). If you signed an “opt-out” form at your employer’s request, you can cancel that at any point although you must provide your employer with notice. You can find further information on the Working Time Regulations here and advice on workload as a health & safety issue here.
School and college leaders should not be expected to work excessive hours over an extended period. Your wellbeing needs to be prioritised in order for you to lead and manage others effectively. If you are concerned about your working hours, speak to your line manager (or Chair of Governors if you are a head teacher or principal) to discuss ways of reducing the number of hours you are working. If that fails to address the problem, you can contact the NEU for further support.
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has been extended until March 2021. Under the Scheme, employees can receive up to 80% of their wages (capped at £2,500) whilst furloughed. The Scheme is flexible to employees can work some of their “normal” hours whilst furloughed for the remainder. Employers are required to pay the employer national insurance and pension contributions for furloughed staff. To be eligible the employee must have been on the employer’s payroll by 23:59 on 30 October 2020.
If your employer is eligible to use the Scheme and you are unable to work due to caring responsibilities as a result of school closures etc., and there are no suitable alternatives, you may wish to discuss with your employer the possibility of being furloughed. See government guidance for employees who can be put on furlough.
Specific advice for members in particular groups
Frequently asked questions for support staff on coronavirus.
We know that supply educators have experienced real difficulties since lockdown began in March. Those difficulties continue even with schools and colleges open.
NEU and joint unions' advice on medically vulnerable - whether clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) or clinically vulnerable (CV) - and higher risk groups.
Frequently asked questions for Black educators during the coronavirus crisis.
Advice on pregnancy and maternity and childcare rights during the Covid-19 crisis
NEU advice regarding the completion of initial teacher training courses and inducation of newly qualified teachers during the coronavirus crisis.
NEU advice and FAQs for members in post-16 colleges regarding Covid-19.
Advice on specific issues relating to the residential sector during the coronavirus crisis.
Staff in independent schools should be consulted on any proposed significant changes to working conditions during the coronavirus outbreak.
Coronavirus FAQs for centrally employed (Soulbury) members.