To give further clarity on matters arising from the government’s announcement on the potential wider re-opening of schools, we’ve answered some frequently asked questions which will be updated on a regular basis. These answers provide broad guidance rather than legal or procedural advice. For specific queries relating to your board’s own circumstances, please contact the GOLDline by emailing gold@nga.org.uk or calling 0121 237 3782.

Should schools share their risk assessment with stakeholders?

It is wise in our view for schools to share their risk assessment with stakeholders, for example by publishing it on their website. This will demonstrate transparency and help to instill confidence that the risks (associated with reopening the school to more pupils) have been considered and, as far as possible, mitigated.

Publishing the risk assessment also provides an opportunity for the school to demonstrate that it has taken into account feedback obtained through the engagement and wider discussion with parents and staff (and union representatives) about opening safely for more pupils, and has been subject to a full discussion with the governing board, who support its conclusions.  

Should characteristics such as age and ethnicity be specifically considered in a risk assessment?

Yes, although current DfE guidance does not require schools to single out specific characteristics, governing boards should expect the risk assessment carried out by their senior executive leader to be proportionate but sufficiently robust. The risk assessment should take into account the higher level of risk and measures needed to protect certain groups who are more vulnerable to COVID-19. These include people over sixty, those with underlying health issues, black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities and those who are shielding.

Can schools receive reimbursement for the additional costs incurred as a result of COVID-19?

Yes, DfE acknowledges that there will be some instances where schools face additional costs as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. In these circumstances, additional funding is available for specific items. More information can be found in DfE guidance.

Who makes the decision on whether the school should re-open to more pupils?

In our view, the decision on whether a school is should re-open to more pupils is operational and should be taken by the headteacher/senior executive leader. This is because they know the unique circumstances of their schools best and therefore are best placed to make the detailed decisions required when it comes to safety.

The governing board as a corporate entity remains accountable and responsible for all decisions made and school leaders operate within the autonomy, powers and functions delegated to them by the board.

The headteacher/senior executive leader will need to undertake a full risk assessment before making a decision, and it would be wise for them to bring that assessment to their governing board. Governing boards, while trusting their headteacher/senior executive leader assessment, should test its robustness.

The NGA information briefing on the safe re-opening of schools to more pupils includes advice for governing boards on testing the robustness of their headteacher/CEO’s risk assessment. 

A genuinely collaborative process and full discussion should give the governing board the confidence to support their headteacher/CEO’s decision and be an advocate for the position taken.

As a maintained school, if the local authority (LA) directs all schools in the area to not re-open, do we have to follow it?

A maintained school where the LA is also the legal employer (e.g. community and voluntary controlled schools) would need to have a very good reason and explain their decision to re-open  more pupils when the LA has advised that it is not safe to do this.

Regardless of who is the legal employer of the staff schools should seek to understand local concerns and to factor these into risk assessments. Planning to open more widely needs to be a participative process which builds the confidence of staff, parents and communities.

Do all the schools in a multi academy trust (MAT) need to reach the same decision on whether or not to re-open to more pupils?

No, each school should carry out their own risk assessment based on their individual characteristics. We anticipate the final decision on whether to re-open to more pupils to be made by the Head of school, in discussion with the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and relevant academy committee (also referred to as local governing bodies).

This may well lead to some schools in the MAT not re-opening to more pupils, but it is important the decision reflects the risk assessment and is the right decision for that particular school.

The Trust is the legal employer of staff in all its schools. On that basis an individual school within the trust would need to have a very good reason and explain their decision to re-open to more pupils when the trust has advised that that it is not safe to do this.

Is the governing board required to formally approve the decision of the headteacher/senior executive leader to re-open the school to more pupils?

There is no requirement for the governing board to ratify the headteacher/senior executive leader’s decision to re-open the school to more pupils. However, the full discussion that takes place between the headteacher/senior executive leader and the governing board regarding the risk assessment and plan (for re-opening the school to more pupils) will, in all probability, result in the governing board confirming that they support their headteacher/senior executive leader’s decision (effectively making it a joint decision) and to this being documented in the form of notes/minutes.

Can the governing board overrule the decision of the headteacher/senior executive leader to re-open the school to more pupils?

Legally the answer to this question is yes because the governing board (within the parameters of the governing structure) as a corporate entity remains accountable and responsible for all decisions made and school leaders operate within the autonomy, powers and functions delegated to them by the board.

However it is most unlikely that this will happen if there has been a full discussion of the risk assessment and the advice of the governing board has been taken into account alongside relevant advice given by local health and safety teams including the LA or trust.

Can individual governors or trustees be held personally liable if pupils or staff contract Covid-19?

We appreciate that governing boards are concerned about personal liability in relation to their responsibilities towards staff, especially where the governing board is the legal employer of staff such as trustees in academy trusts and governing boards of voluntary aided schools. Working with the parameters set by the government guidance and other authorities (local authorities, public health advice etc.) will serve to protect school leaders and governing boards. It should also be noted that the governing board has collective responsibility for health and safety, rather than individual responsibility. Employer liability claims for compensation against individuals are extremely uncommon and it would be very rare for individual governors to be personally liable for health and safety issues.

If our school is re-opening to more pupils, do we need to make any changes to our child protection policy?

DfE guidance states that following the return of more pupils, it may be appropriate to consider a further review of the policy, led by the DSL or Deputy DSL, wherever possible. The revised child protection policy should reflect the return of more children from 1 June.

In terms of how this is approved, it is important that the amendments are implemented without delay and so if possible, should be approved by the chair.

As not all academies will have an option for the chair of the board to make decisions in times of urgency. In such cases we recommend that any revised policy adopted by the school and then reviewed and formally ratified by the board as soon as reasonable practicable.

More information can be found on the DfE updates website.

How should information be shared between the Senior Executive Leader and the governing board?

School leaders and governing boards are currently working in difficult circumstances. However, it is important that governors and trustees are kept up to date with developments within the school.

As the Senior Executive Leader will be working hard to assess options and ensure the best decisions are being made for the school, children and its staff, regular full governing board meetings to feedback may not be possible. However, we would expect that regular contact is maintained with at least the chair of governors. To help ensure that the workload remains manageable for the chair, the vice chair could also be involved. This update can then be shared with the rest of the board. Any update amongst governors and trustees should be just that, an update and consideration of business such as the risk assessment should be left to governing board meetings.

How should governing boards engage with parents and carers?

Some parents and carers will understandably be concerned about how the decision to re-open schools will affect their child and so it is vital that they are given the opportunity to share these concerns and have their questions answered. Much of this will be done by the Senior Executive Leader who will also want to find a way of gauging the appetite amongst parents about their children returning to schools.

Governors and trustees are expected to retain their strategic role and so it is not expected that they proactively engage directly with parents and carers. However, some parents and carers may also look to the governing board for reassurance and so boards should consider supporting the communications from the school. This could involve the co-signing of a letter that goes out to parents.

What is the board’s role in overseeing the education provision provided for those not in school?

Governing boards will recognise that the current circumstances mean that it is not possible for the work being provided to children who are not in school to replicate the learning they would normally undertake in school. However, governing boards should maintain oversight of this provision. We would expect that this is something discussed when the chair and/or vice chair catches up with the Senior Executive Leader but also something that will be reported on during board meetings.

When doing this, it is important to take into account the context of the community served by the school/trust and the range of needs of families; those governing should gain an understanding of the approach being taken to support parents and carers to help their children learn at home. This includes how teachers are maintaining contact with their pupils, supporting them in their work and managing issues relating to on-line learning. As well as fulfilling their monitoring role, it also provides an opportunity for governing boards to recognise and show their appreciation for the time and effort the staff are giving to overcoming the challenges presented by remote teaching and learning.

What is the governing board’s role in relation to the mental health and wellbeing of staff and children?

The current situation in relation to Covid-19 has meant that so much in the lives of staff and children has changed so quickly. Governing boards should therefore seek assurances that procedures are in place for staff to speak to pupils, and where appropriate parents, about any concerns or anxieties they may have.

In relation to staff, governing boards should work with the Senior Executive Leader to identify ways in which staff can be helped. This could involve highlighting support services the school currently buys into. Where possible, flexible working could also be considered to help staff maintain a good work-life balance.

It is important that the Senior Executive Leader is not forgotten and so the board, or in practice the Chair, should encourage them to seek additional support and monitor their workload so it does not become unmanageable.

Further guidance on monitoring staff wellbeing can be found on NGA’s Guidance Centre

Are schools legally required to re-open?

The request by government for schools to re-open in phases is not enshrined in legislation or statutory guidance and as such, there are no sanctions for schools who do not re-open.

However, the request is based on scientific evidence and government policy. It is reasonable to question that evidence and policy for its robustness, but that must be done in the light of other evidence. We urge schools to carry out a thorough risk assessment before reaching any final decision.  

 

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