Teachers threaten to sue over return to work

The teachers’ union NASUWT has threatened to sue local authorities if its members are forced to return to school without the same PPE given to NHS staff. The union said it has “fundamental concerns” about the government’s 1 June timetable for re-opening schools. The cause of action is said to be “breach of duty of care and personal injury due to foreseeable risk, and any other legal recourse available”.

The complexity here is that, in forming policy, the government must weigh the duties rightly owed to teachers against the harms which are accruing during the period of school closure, particularly to the most vulnerable children (see my earlier blog post). It seems the union’s answer is that the provision of the requisite PPE is the best route to a fair balance.

The Guardian is covering this story here.

Changes to the EHCP regime during Covid-19: a quick guide for parents and representatives

What are the New Regulations?

On 1 May 2020, the entitlements of children with SEND (and their parents) in relation to the Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plan process changed. The Special Educational Needs and Disability (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 (the ‘New Regulations’) came into force. They will expire on 25 September 2020 unless extended. The New Regulations amend four existing sets of Regulations including the Special Educational Needs and Disability Regulations 2014 (the ‘SEND Regulations’).

The New Regulations were also considered in an earlier post by Alexandra Littlewood, which may also be of interest to readers.

Accompanying guidance was published on 30 April 2020, entitled ‘Education, health and care needs assessments and plans: guidance on temporary legislative changes relating to coronavirus (COVID-19)’ (the ‘New Guidance’). This guidance is non-statutory. Whilst not binding, there is an expectation that it be followed by LAs.

What changes have the New Regulations made?

The temporary changes introduced are to the timescales within which Local Authorities need to take steps within the EHCP process. The steps which LAs are required to take remain the same, and technically the time limits remain unchanged, but LAs are now given a reason (or, in some cases, an additional reason) why they may lawfully miss a deadline. Where is not practicable for the LA to meet certain requirements for “a reason relating to the incidence or transmission of coronavirus”, the LA need no longer comply with the time limit. This is called the “coronavirus exception” in Regulation 5 of the New Regulations. In relation to certain requirements, the LA is required instead to take the action “as soon as reasonably practicable”.

The following timescales have been amended so that now the LA need not comply “if it is impractical to do so because of a reason relating to the incidence or transmission of coronavirus”:

    • 6 weeks for an LA to notify a child’s parents that it has determined that it is not necessary to make special educational provision in accordance with an EHCP (Regulation 4(1) of the SEND Regulations, amended by Regulation 6 of the New Regulations)
    • 6 weeks for an LA to notify a child’s parents of a decision whether or not to conduct an EHC needs assessment (Regulation 5(1) of the SEND Regulations, amended by Regulation 7(b) of the New Regulations)
    • 16 weeks for an LA to notify a child’s parents of a decision not to secure an EHCP (Regulation 10(1) of the SEND Regulations, amended by Regulation 9(b) of the New Regulations)
    • 20 weeks for an LA to send a finalised EHCP to a child’s parents (Regulation 13(2) of the SEND Regulations, amended by Regulation 10 of the New Regulations)
    • 1 year in which an LA must review an EHCP, which is replaced by a requirement that the LA instead conduct a review as soon as reasonably practicable (section 44(1) of the Children and Families Act 2014, see now Regulation 11 of the New Regulations)
    • 8 weeks for an LA to amend a plan following a review (Regulation 22(3) of the SEND Regulations, amended by Regulation 12 of the New Regulations)

A full list of all the changes made by the New Regulations can be found in Annex A to the New Guidance.

The 15 days which parents must be given in order to make representations on a draft EHCP is not changed (Regulation 13 of the SEND Regulations).

Parents and advisors should note that the Secretary of State has been given the power to ‘pause’ the duty of LAs to conduct annual reviews of EHCPs (Sch 17 para 5 of the Coronavirus Act 2020), but this has not yet ben used, so annual reviews are still required at the moment.

What should parents expect?

The amendments do not give LAs a licence not to comply with legal deadlines for any reason they choose. Their reason for non-compliance must relate to Covid-19. Further, if subject to legal challenge, it is likely that an LA merely pointing to the existence of the Covid-19 pandemic will be insufficient to establish that failure to comply with a deadline was lawful. Rather, the LA would need to establish that the failure was specifically “because of a reason relating to the incidence or transmission of coronavirus” ie it seems necessary to be able to identify a specific “reason”.

Parents should be vigilant. Where it is suspected that the new leeway is not being used properly, parents may wish to seek legal advice.

The substantive entitlements of children with SEND remain unchanged. There has been no relaxation of the duty to consider new requests for assessments, so parents should continue to make such requests as before, where they have concerns.

School closure: the impact on children and parents unfolds

Where are we now?

Schools in England, along with childcare and other education providers, have been closed “until further notice” since 20 March 2020, for all but vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. With several European countries beginning to re-open schools (Denmark from 17 April, Germany from 4 May and France from 11 May), it remains to be seen when and in what way the closure of our schools will be brought to an end. At the time of writing, the Department for Education (DfE) maintains that no date has been set for schools in England to re-open, but there is speculation around an announcement on 10 May. Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), has conjectured that the earliest “realistic” point at which schools in England could start re-opening would be from 1 June. A poll for the Observer on 2 May 2020 suggested that fewer than 1 in 5 of the British public believe the time is right to consider re-opening schools. However, in the meantime, the impacts of school closure – including its myriad legal implications – continue to accumulate.

What is the impact of continued closure on children and parents?
  • The most obvious impact is upon pupil progress. The attainment gap between maintained and independent school pupils will likely broaden, as fee-paying schools are incentivised to provide more and higher quality online resources in order to justify continuing to charge fees which are often only slightly reduced below normal rates. (A future blog post will consider parents’ ability to bring legal actions where online teaching quality is not considered commensurate with continuing fee levels.) Initiatives such as the Oak National Academy, whilst helpful, are unlikely to bridge the gap.
  • The negative impact of virtual-only schooling is likely to be felt most acutely by disabled children and those from low income families, raising the possibility of indirect discrimination. The Government announced on 19 April that “disadvantaged children” (care leavers or those with a social worker) were to be given a free laptop/tablet and 4G based mobile broadband to access online learning. However, it seems a band of children who do not fall within this definition of “disadvantaged” but nonetheless cannot access remote education could continue to see their right to education infringed by local authorities who have an obligation to ensure all children can access teaching. Readers may also be interested in Ciar McAndrew’s blog post of 18 May 2020 on this topic.
  • Whilst schools are required to remain open for vulnerable children (defined as those with a social worker or an Education, Health and Care Plan), uptake has been considerably lower than hoped, with just 5% of vulnerable children entitled to a place turning up. Some parents are believed to be keeping children from school in response to broad, strong Governmental messages to stay home. However, if non-attendance were due to insufficient school places for vulnerable children (or children of critical workers) during school ‘closure’, responsibility lies with local authorities who are tasked with monitoring demand and supply, and eligible children with nowhere to go may have a legal cause of action against them. For a proportion of the children entitled to free school meals, their school dinner can be the most nutritious meal of the day, and so schools are expected to continue to provide support either in the form of food or vouchers, through the Department for Education’s national voucher scheme. Concerns remain that school closures could leave children hungry, as food and vouchers may not reach all children from low income families.
  • During term time, teachers and other school staff are often the first to identify and report when a child may be vulnerable to abuse and neglect, or specific harms such as FGM or being drawn into terrorism (under the ‘Prevent Duty’). School closure brings an end to this safeguarding potential. Coupled with this is the fact that, as highlighted by the CEO of the NSPCC on 8 March, children not known to social services are more at risk at home than anywhere else. This means that, for example, sexual abuse – both in person and online – is likely to increase at the same time as schools’ ability to monitor children for such issues is removed. The Government pledged £1.6 million on 19 April 2020 to the NSPCC to expand its national helpline for adults raising concerns, but this safety net can by no means catch all children.
What should we expect?

When schools re-open it is going to be necessary to maintain social distancing, which will require advance planning, making a short-notice announcement of schools re-opening unlikely. It may be safest to do as other European countries re-opening schools have done and reintroduce certain year groups first. It was previously thought by some, including the ASCL, that it was most likely that England may opt for the German model, under which those preparing for upcoming exams or for secondary transfer return first. However, the Prime Minister indicated on 3 May that primary schools may be prioritised, which would mirror Denmark’s approach. Amanda Spielman, head of Ofsted, supports such a method. Any decision by Boris Johnson or Gavin Williamson would only apply directly to schools in England, since education policy is devolved to national administrations.

In the meantime, whilst the Government has thus far not responded to calls to make it compulsory for vulnerable children to attend school, it would be beneficial to have clearer Governmental messages around the availability of school places for them, which stress that those places are to help pupils and parents rather than to be a burden. Unless the most vulnerable soon return to school, the ramifications set out above will continue to cause problems, and families may turn to the courts for the remedy.

Imogen Proud is a barrister at Monckton Chambers who practices in Education Law. Before coming to the Bar, she was a state school teacher in Hackney and Islington.

Relaxation to SEND legislation due to coronavirus

On 30 April 2020, the government announced two important changes to special educational needs and disability (SEND) legislation. The aim of the changes is to give local authorities more flexibility in responding to the demands placed on them by coronavirus. This post explains those changes, and considers the scope for future legal challenges.

Relaxation of section 42 duty

In the first of the two changes, the Secretary of State for Education published a notice temporarily modifying the duty in section 42 of the Children and Families Act 2014. Section 42 places a duty on local authorities and health commissioning bodies to secure special educational provision and health care provision for children and young people in accordance with Education Health and Care (EHC) Plans. The effect of the Secretary of State’s notice is to relax the section 42 duty so that local authorities and CCGs are now required only to use “reasonable endeavours” to secure the provision in an EHC Plan.

The “reasonable endeavours” modification was made using new emergency powers contained in the Coronavirus Act 2020 (see paragraph 5(6) of Schedule 17). The notice is in force for one month, from 1 to 31 May 2020, but can be extended by further notice.

Local authorities will no doubt rely on this relaxation to justify reductions in provision in EHC plans, and in some cases it may be appropriate for them to do so. However, as the new Government Guidance makes clear, the notice does not absolve local authorities of their responsibilities under section 42. Local authorities must still consider for each child and young person with an EHC plan what they can reasonably provide in the circumstances; any blanket decision to reduce or remove provision without such individual consideration would clearly be open to judicial review.

When considering what can reasonably be provided in the circumstances, the Guidance indicates that local authorities should consider what alternative arrangements can be made, including the use of technology, online learning, and provision of materials for home learning. Failure to consider such alternatives could also leave a local authority vulnerable to challenge, since it would be difficult in those circumstances to demonstrate the use of “reasonable endeavours”.

Changes to the timescales for EHC processes

The second change is that the government introduced the Special Educational Needs and Disability (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 (the ‘Amendment Regulations’). The Amendment Regulations temporarily amend four other sets of Regulations which set out the statutory timescales in which certain processes relating to EHC assessments and plans must ordinarily be carried out.

Under the Amendment Regulations, where, for a reason related to coronavirus, it is not possible to carry out those processes within the normal time limit, the process must instead be completed as soon as practicable, or in some cases as soon as reasonably practicable. The timescales affected include the 6-week limit for deciding whether to proceed with an EHC needs assessment, and the 20 week limit for issuing EHC Plans. A full list of the amendments can be found in the Annex to the Government Guidance.

The amendments to the timescales for EHC processes do not authorise local authorities to stop following the statutory processes, but do allow them greater flexibility in doing so. A local authority must still consider requests for new EHC needs assessments or re-assessments, and cannot implement a general policy of refusing to consider new requests because of coronavirus. Any such policy would again be open to challenge via judicial review. Furthermore, a failure to comply with the time limits for any reason other than coronavirus remains unlawful and open to challenge.

Scope for further changes in future

Whilst this post focuses on the changes to SEND legislation that have already been implemented, it should be noted that there are many other important duties relating to SEND which may be disapplied or modified in the near future using the Secretary of State’s powers in Schedule 17 to the Coronavirus Act 2020. Any further changes to SEND legislation will be closely monitored by this blog.

To sit or not to sit? Reflections on exam grading in a Covid-19 world

On 18 March 2020, the Prime Minister announced that school examinations, including GCSEs, A Levels, and AS Levels, would not take place this academic year. That announcement was followed by a Parliamentary Written Statement from the Secretary of State for Education on 23 March 2020 indicating the broad approach that would be taken in place of examinations, followed by more detailed guidance from Ofqual on 3 April 2020.

The basis upon which grades are to be awarded involves a two-stage process. At the first stage the “Head of Centre” (i.e. normally the headteacher) is required to produce an assessment of “the grade that each student is most likely to have achieved if they had sat their exams. This professional judgement is derived from evidence held within the centre and which has been reviewed by subject teachers and relevant heads of department” and a rank order for each student within each grade and each subject. That information is to be passed to the examination boards which “will use a statistical model to standardise grades across centres in each subject.” In reaching their assessments, Heads of Centre are required to provide a “holistic professional judgement, balancing the different sources of evidence” which will include (where available) records of performance over the period of study, performance on any non-exam assessment (even if not fully completed), performance on any homework or classwork assessments, performance in any mock examinations, and “any other relevant evidence”.

While the cancellation of examinations in May or June may have been inevitable given the current public health crisis, its replacement by this alternative method of assessment raises a number of issues. Not least, a pupil who has spent two or more years preparing for a qualification on the basis that (in many subjects) the sole and decisive determinant of his/her grade would be performance in examinations might be thought to have a legitimate expectation that would be the approach to be applied, not some quite different approach. That change has also taken place at a point when the ability of the pupil to adapt to the new approach is very severely constrained, not least given Ofqual’s stricture that “Where additional work has been completed after schools and colleges were closed on 20 March, Heads of Centre should exercise caution where that evidence suggests a change in performance.”

Although Ofqual has subsequently undertaken a consultation (which closed on 29 April 2020) on certain detailed aspects of the new arrangements relating to their implementation, that exercise did not include any consultation upon the most fundamental principle of its approach, namely that the award of grades for GCSE, A Levels, and AS Levels on the basis of examination performance should be replaced by a combination of holistic assessment and statistical adjustment. Ofqual did not seek views on what alternatives might been put in place, such as, for example, delaying examinations or, if a different assessment process were to be used, replacing the current grading scale with one which reflected the very different circumstances which now obtain.

It will be seen in due course how the results of that consultation exercise are taken into account, but one of the most striking proposals is that there should be no right of appeal save on the grounds that the centre made a data error when submitting its information or that the examination board made a mistake when calculating, assigning or communicating a grade. If those proposals are adopted, a pupil who does not receive the grade(s) that s/he might have expected had the planned examination taken place will apparently have limited redress through the appeal process. In particular, the proposed approach would appear to make much more difficult any challenge to one of the most important components in the assessment process, namely the “holistic professional judgement”.

One answer to the pupil who does not receive the grades s/he considered appropriate appears to be that an opportunity will be provided for examinations in the autumn, whose results will be given the same weight as those awarded in the summer. However, given that plans for exiting the current lockdown have yet to be announced, and may in any event need to change if there is another spike in the coronavirus pandemic, it remains to be seen how feasible that proposal will be.

Only time will tell how the proposed new approach will work out. However, given the enormous stakes which ride upon the grades awarded at GCSE, AS and A Level, it would not be surprising if in due course the lawfulness of the process, its application, and the results it produces were not subjected to more detailed scrutiny than has been the case so far.

A further blog on the outcome of the Ofqual consultation will follow in due course.