NEU survey shows a complete lack of trust in Government to keep schools open and safe through Covid

  • 84% of respondents to a new National Education Union survey do not trust Boris Johnson’s Government to keep schools safe, to protect workers, to listen to the profession, to support vulnerable or disadvantaged children, or to ensure exams and assessment are fit for purpose during Covid.
  • 80% of respondents report pupil absences because of self-isolating and/or a lack of tests. One in five (20%) confirm “significant” numbers of pupil absences at their school.
  • Prioritising pupils and staff for Covid-19 testing is absolutely key to keeping schools open – it was the top priority for respondents (74%), with increased local testing on an almost exact par (73.7%).
  • More than half (51%) confirm they have witnessed a significant increase in hardship for pupils/families at their school since the start of lockdown in March.
  • 47% of those surveyed have “significant” concerns about the possibility of staff shortages – resulting from self-isolating and/or a lack of testing – impacting on their school’s ability to maintain workable staff levels. 11% of those surveyed reported that staff shortages are already having this effect.

In the past 48 hours, and on the eve of a Special Conference of the National Education Union, we have consulted our membership as to the current state of play in schools. Almost 5,500 members in England have responded, telling us what their working lives are like and how the Government’s handling of the Covid pandemic – particularly access to testing – is affecting the whole school community.


70% of respondents told us that there are staff shortages in their school as a result of self-isolation and/or access to testing, with 11% of leadership members describing those shortages as “significant”.

Pupil absences as a result of Covid are more widespread, with 80% of respondents reporting. One in five (20%) say that their school has “significant” pupil absence, with almost as many (19%) stating that a whole bubble has been sent home.

When asked if they believe staff shortages will lead to difficulties for their school when trying to maintain sufficient staff levels, almost half of respondents (47%) said that it was an imminent problem for their school. More than one in ten (11%) described it as an existing problem. A further 20% said there was a “little concern”, with just 0.7% saying they had no concerns at all.


Budgetary pressures were already enormous before Covid, and Boris Johnson’s settlement for schools fell way short of what is needed. With the pandemic, schools now and for the foreseeable time have to maintain Covid-security, which is expensive and will come out of existing budgets in the first instance. Schools must use all their reserves before making any application to the Department for Education for further funding, but the cost of covering staff absences due to Covid is rapidly eroding away reserves and putting wider educational spending at a given school at risk. When schools do appeal to Government for more funding, there is no guarantee it will come, come promptly or be sufficient to cover costs.

We asked members if they believed their school had enough money to sustain Covid-security for the next six months. Only 4% of respondents believed this was the case, with a further 29% certain they cannot survive on current funds. More than half of leadership members surveyed (52%) could not say for sure if they would be able to sustain spending on Covid safety for the next six months.

Trust in Government

Given the current health crisis, we asked respondents in a multiple-choice which of the following they trust Government to do.

Keep schools safe


Protect workers at greater risk


Listen to the profession


Make sure exams and assessment are fair and fit for purpose in 2020/21


Provide enough support for vulnerable and disadvantaged children to make sure they’re not hardest hit by the impact of Covid


None of the above


This is a devastating verdict on the Government. The views were consistent across the sample, with very similar percentages of classroom teachers and leadership members for each choice, and the same was also true when primary and secondary sector responses were compared.

Remote/Online Learning

Our survey closed shortly before the Government’s latest announcement (1 October), which imposed new expectations on “consistent remote education”. This follows a summer in which a great many disadvantaged children did not receive the I.T. equipment promised to them by Government, consequently leading to a negative impact on their learning.

At school level, and with a few weeks of term having passed, respondents were able to tell us what proportion of pupils at their school are now prepared for remote/online learning should they need to work away in the near future.

Less than a quarter


A quarter to a half


More than half but less than three quarters


Upwards of three quarters


All of them


Not sure


There was greater positivity amongst secondary members, although with just 63% reporting preparedness amongst half or more of their intake, there is clearly much work still to be done in the time available.

Secondary table:

Less than a quarter


A quarter to a half


More than half but less than three quarters


Upwards of three quarters


All of them


Not sure


One respondent commented: “We desperately need better I.T. facilities and training for our low income families who live in overcrowded flats with one phone or iPad - they are not prepared for online learning in the way that more affluent areas are.  This is an area which needs a lot of support.”


When asked if pupils/families in their school community are facing a “significant increase” in hardship since the start of lockdown in March, a striking 51% of respondents confirmed that they were. 45% did not yet know, while 4% confirmed they had seen no change.





Don’t Know


Amongst leadership members, these totals shifted to 59%, 5% and 36% respectively.

When results were cross-referenced with the earlier question on remote learning, it became clear that there is a significant issue. Among members witnessing an increase in hardship at their school, just 17% believed that more than three-quarters of their full pupil intake were prepared for online/remote learning. This was sharply different to those who were not seeing an increase in hardship, where the preparedness of more than three-quarters of pupils at their school stood at 48%.

Proportion of pupils prepared for further remote learning

Where hardship had increased

Where hardship had not increased

Less than a quarter



A quarter to a half



More than half but less than three quarters



Upwards of three quarters



All of them



Not sure



Keeping Schools Open

Finally, we asked members what was needed from Government to ensure schools can remain open to all pupils all week throughout the coming months. In this multiple-choice question, the order of preference from respondents was as follows:

Prioritising pupils and staff for Covid-19 testing


More availability of Covid-19 tests locally/at home


More Covid-19 tests in school


Quicker return of Covid-19 test results


More money (e.g. reimbursement of all Covid-19-related costs)


Regular asymptomatic testing of staff and students


Clearer guidance


Reductions in class sizes


Better and quicker access to CAMHS, behaviour support services and other therapies


Stricter rules across society (e.g. travel, distancing, household mixing etc)


More support staff (excluding cleaners)


More teaching staff


More cleaners


More space/access to ‘Nightingale classrooms’ in the local area


Availability of local infection data and intervention thresholds


Better access to Local Health Protection Teams


Don’t know


This table shows a commonality across respondents on the importance of testing, with strong support for all suggested measures including regular asymptomatic testing.

A significant number of members agree it is essential to reduce class sizes through new spaces and the availability of more teaching staff. The NEU has previously called for retired, supply and newly qualified but otherwise unemployed teachers to be drafted in as part of a national effort to resource schools during Covid.

Amongst leadership respondents, the need for more money rose to third highest priority (72%).

In open comments, additional recommendations were made:

“More support for clinically vulnerable staff. A return to the option of working from home. This is advised to me by NHS but contradicted by DfE advice. If I don’t go in, I won’t be paid.”

“I think there has been significant impact on student and staff mental health.  Much more support is needed in this area.”

“Consistency in messaging.”

“Guidance is often contradictory - e.g. not supposed to share PE resources but can share science equipment. Makes it difficult to know what is best to do.”

This weekend’s Special Conference of the National Education Union will focus on the most critical issues facing the profession. The three motions to be read will look at health & safety and workload pressures under Covid and the shape of examinations and assessment as we go into 2021. The agenda is available here.

Commenting on the results of the survey, Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“School and college staff are doing everything they can to keep schools open for all pupils, but the Government is not pulling its weight. Our survey shows all too clearly that a lack of access to testing and the disruption of self-isolation, often due to the lack of a test result, is undermining the ability of schools to maintain fully-staffed on-site learning for all those who need it. The results also show an imminent danger that this problem will become very widespread indeed.

“This was completely foreseeable. A return to schools and colleges, matched with the opening-up of society, offices, and the movement of university students across the UK, was always likely to heighten the case count. Staff and pupils alike have been forced to self-isolate, or struggle to find a test to establish whether or not they should self-isolate. The Government had months to prepare a fit-for-purpose test, track and trace system, and they failed.

“It is clear the Government has completely lost the trust of school leaders, teachers and school staff. This is no surprise. Boris Johnson’s promises have regularly been exposed as bluster, while Gavin Williamson’s mismanagement not just of guidance to schools but also this year’s exams results has been dizzyingly poor.

“The message from our members is clear. Schools kept their side of the bargain in getting schools open this September; it is time for the Government to keep theirs.”

Editor’s Note

The online survey was conducted between Tuesday 29 September and Thursday 1 October 2020.

Of the 5,451 members who responded, 50% work in the primary sector, 44% in the secondary sector and 4% in early years. Members in other sectors were consulted but no other group constituted more than 1% of responses.

72% of respondents are teachers, while 20% form part of their school’s leadership team. The remainder are classroom assistants, SENCOs or other types of specialist.



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