Return to school update for governing boards

Issues relating to the return of pupils to schools
Happy New Year.
We thought it important to update and advise you on the challenging and complex issues relating to the return of pupils to schools in January. The Prime Minister is making a televised announcement at 8pm this evening (4 January), and if you have questions arising, please contact us on

Governing boards up and down the country are working with their school leaders and are acting as a vital sounding board when deciding what is safe for their pupils and staff in the light of guidance and local public health advice. You are likely to have begun those discussions over the school holidays, but as the circumstances are changing daily – and sometimes hourly – you and your leaders will be reassessing.

The current national plan for school opening in January
The current plan for school opening at the time of writing was announced by the Secretary of State on 30 December  alongside an updated contingency framework implementation guidance and further DfE media blog and Q&A.

Health and safety concerns arising from the current plan for school opening in January
The health and safety concerns arising from the current plan for school opening in January has led to some unions advising their members of their individual right to refuse to return to the workplace. We anticipate that school leaders will be working closely with employees and unions who have expressed concerns about the safety of the working environment and attempt to address them in their risk assessments. However, it would not be wise for schools/trusts to take immediate action against members of staff for not attending the school site on this basis.

Some local authorities have advised their primary schools to switch to remote learning from the start of term and prioritise opening for vulnerable and key worker children, while others have informed their school leaders that they would support a decision to not reopen fully from the start of term.

In view of this, many school leaders will have concerns about having sufficient staff attending to ensure the health and safety of all pupils and staff. School leaders will be in the best position, knowing their staff and school circumstances, to decide how to proceed in individual cases and, having carried out a risk assessment, make appropriate decisions as to whether they are to open safely.

Decisions about whether to open or close schools – the role of governing boards
Currently a decision to open or close the school resides with the executive leader and is taken in consultation with their governing board. The key messages here are:

  • The executive leader knows the unique circumstances of their schools best and therefore are best placed to make the detailed decisions required when it comes to safety.
  • It is recommended that legal advice (eg through the local authority or trust) is sought before taking a decision not to follow the government’s proposals for bringing back pupils at the start of term.
  • School leaders should also seek the advice of their governing board. As circumstances permit this could be through the chair, vice-chair or an emergency meeting of the governing board held remotely.
  • The governing board as a corporate entity remains accountable and responsible for the decision. Therefore, the board should be prepared to test the robustness of the school leader’s risk assessment and whether, based on the evidence, the school(s) should open for all pupils or close for pupils except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers and remotely educate other pupils. The governing board should also be prepared to ratify the decision and support the communication of it to stakeholders.
  • The governing board has collective responsibility for health and safety, rather than individual responsibility. It would be very rare for individual governors and trustees to be personally liable for health and safety issues.

Remote education – expectations, support and monitoring
In light of the developing situation with the new COVID variant and the likelihood of more schools having to close to most pupils, it becomes even more important that governing boards scrutinise their school’s strategy and plans for delivering remote education to pupils at home. In particular, the ability of the school or trust to switch quickly and efficiently to online (blended) learning should circumstances require.

The DfE’s guidance on remote education good practice details some of the characteristics of effective remote learning. NGA’s COVID-19 resource centre also includes information on remote education.

Asymptomatic COVID-19 testing for all pupils and staff from 4 January 2021
DfE guidance updated on 30 December states that all schools with secondary-age pupils (including special schools and alternative provision) should offer tests for their pupils, with time to prepare from week commencing 4 January and reaching as many pupils as possible from the week of the 11 January. Testing for primary staff under the weekly and daily testing programmes will begin in the second half of January. A £78 million support fund will be shared by schools and colleges to help with mass testing costs.

Large scale testing is an important priority, and a valuable resource in helping to ensure a continuity of education for as many pupils as possible. In our statement released on Friday 18 December, we emphasised concern for the wellbeing and welfare of school leaders as a result of the timing of this announcement and the perceived expectation it places on schools.

The wellbeing of staff, especially school leaders
While it is our role as governors and trustees to support and challenge our school leaders and their staff to do the right thing, we should never underestimate the huge amount of work they do on behalf of others and also the importance of considering their health and wellbeing. Getting the support right for others is not easy and the encouragement that school leaders receive from their governing boards goes a long way.

NGA representing your views
NGA continues to represent the views and interests of our members in conversations with other education organisations and with ministers and civil servants. For example, about the need for school staff to be on the vaccination priority list. Thanks to those of you who have taken the time to contact us. Please email if you would like to share any comments.