Local Government left out again

by John Fowler

November 9, 2020

The school system in England, Covid-19, Temporary Continuity Directions, free education, local government and what next?

New Visions Secretary John Fowler discusses the new government direction on remote education, its implications for schools, pupils and parents and how local authorities could be utilised despite their absence in the government’s approach to remote learning.


From 22 October 2020 schools in England were placed under a new legal direction, a Temporary Continuity Direction, to provide “remote education” when pupils are not able to attend school due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The DfE Explanatory Note states:

“The Direction requires that where a class, group of pupils, or individual pupils need to self-isolate, or there are local or national restrictions requiring pupils to remain at home, schools are expected to provide immediate access to remote education”.

To this should be added there are many schools where pupils are being sent home because staff have Covid-19 or are self-isolating and there are not sufficient staff left to keep the school running safely. See the BBC News item Northern England schools ‘most disrupted by Covid’ for the extent to which schools are providing remote education.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) when the direction was published thundered that it “is a grave error which risks irreparable damage to the relationship between government and the profession”. The education trade press reported extensively on the direction and reaction to it, and there have been mentions in the national media, see Laura McInerney in the Guardian “How can England’s schools educate isolating children if families can’t afford wifi?“

Predictably the local government press has remained silent. For the many local government readers who have missed the direction, the TES has done an excellent piece on what the direction means What you legally have to do for self-isolating pupils (18 October 2020). (Registration On the TES website may be required to access the article.)

The legislation is found in the rushed Coronavirus Act. The Secretary of State is given almost unfettered powers to issue directions without Parliamentary scrutiny.

Siobhain McDonagh MP raised the direction in an adjournment debate on 20 October 2020 pointing out that:

“Ofcom estimates that the number [without internet access at home or a laptop, desktop or tablet] affected could be as many as an extraordinary 1.78 million children in the UK” and that “Staggering data from the Children’s Commissioner indicates that more than 58% of primary and just under half of secondary school pupils were being provided with no online lessons whatever”.

Minister Nick Gibb listed in reply what the Government has done to support remote education including the delivery of a further 250,00 laptops and tablets to schools in addition to the 220,00 delivered in the Summer Term, work with the major IT and telecom suppliers, and the DfE-funded Oak National Academy.

The direction was published in the London Gazette on 1 October 2020 and DfE guidance Get help with remote education was updated. More extensive guidance can be found in Guidance for full opening: schools which was last updated on 21 October 2020 and now stands at 54 pages if printed.

The decision to issue a direction, which some see as heavy-handed, and enables the Secretary of State to go to court to seek a compliance order with serious consequences if defied, may be because increasing numbers of children are being sent home. The DFE publishes data every Tuesday on school attendance collected on the previous Thursday. On 22 October, there were estimated to be 573,300 pupils not attending school for Covid-19 related reasons compared to 409,000 a week earlier. See SchoolsWeek Attendance plummets as more pupils forced to self-isolate (27 October 2020). The article records that 26 per cent of state-funded schools had “one or more pupils self-isolating who had been asked to do so due to potential contact with a case of coronavirus inside the school”. This is up from 21 per cent last week’.

It remains to be seen whether the threat of legal action against schools will have an effect. Schools know the value of maintaining onsite teaching wherever possible. However, will schools be up to providing remote learning for all pupils from the start of any period of self-isolation? (NB: For local authority maintained schools, the responsible body is the governing body and not the local authority except in the few cases where delegation has been suspended and an interim executive board has not yet been established.)

Much remote learning depends on home access to information and communications technology which many families do not have. The Government has responded to requests for information about how many laptops, tablets and 4G wireless routers have been delivered with a webpage. However, the lack of laptops is a continuing problem. See TES ‘Grim’ Covid stats prompt laptops plea to ‘failing’ DfE (27 October 2020). And the housing conditions for many families is another impediment to effective remote education no matter how many laptops are supplied.

England has had a chequered stop-go track record to the development of educational technology in schools over the last 20 years. However, schools have probably made more progress on using ICT in the school curriculum in the last six months than they had in the previous 10 years. This is to the enormous credit of school staff, especially where they have had to develop “blended learning”, a mixture of face-to-face and remote teaching. However, schools need both the resources, staff training and time to get it right. OFSTED is visiting schools to assess the quality of remote education and the Regional Schools Commissioners are trying to monitor what is going on.

The absence of a specific local authority role in securing remote learning is indicative of the government’s approach to the development of the school system. There has not been a government statement on the development of the school system since the long since abandoned Educational Excellence Everywhere White Paper in March 2016, three prime ministers and four secretaries of state for education ago.

There are two essential components of school systems in developed democracies. The ‘state’ must:

secure sufficient schools, suitably staffed and equipped, to enable all children and young people to be educated; and
require parents to ensure their children are educated and, in return, access to school education is free.

This has been the settled position in the UK for 75 years with the functions carried out, for most of this period, cooperatively between central and local government across each local authority area. (For the purist readers, there were bodies called Part 3 authorities until 1972 which had education functions in addition to the county local education authority.) However, every reader will know this once effective central-local partnership has broken down in recent years.

Has Covid-19 changed anything? Earlier this year, the LGIU published two pieces relating these components to the Covid-19 pandemic: Covid-19: Reopening schools to all pupils – a view on best practice and current law (21 May 2020) and Covid-19: what about free school education? A personal view (17 April 2020). And the LGIU has tracked developments throughout the Summer. See Starting school in September 2020: catching up and recovery (16 September 2020).

The provision of education in state-funded schools in the school curriculum must by law be without charge whether the education takes place on or off the school site. Remote education places additional costs on parents and, in spite of schools’ valiant efforts (with local authority support in many cases) to support home learning, the distribution of 500,000 laptops and tablets is a small proportion of the 8,000,000 children who may need to switch to remote education. The cost to parents may have been recognised for the most vulnerable who are in receipt of laptops but there is still a large proportion where this is not the case even accepting that a few families already have ICT equipment for each child. It appears that state education is no longer without charge for all parents.

While schools are quite rightly in the driving seat to make day to day decisions, a well-equipped and experienced local authority could step in to help schools in difficulties although sadly that infrastructure is neither present nor with sufficient authority in many areas to take on such a role. Local authorities arguably performed well in finding school education during the lockdown for vulnerable children and the children of key workers when schools had to close although little has been published about this role. But has school education been available for all since March? Probably not given the figures quoted about by Siobhain McDonagh.

The ‘test and trace’ question has reminded many that local functions are best performed locally in partnership with an effective national infrastructure. Could the same apply to the school system and if so has local government got the capacity to argue and fulfil a major and pivotal role again?

This article was originally published by John Fowler as a blog for the Local Government Information Unit.

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