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In the news 28 August 2020

28 August 2020

Scapegoats, U-turns, dithering and confusion reign in Westminster

It's been another week of scapegoating, dithering and U-turns from the Westminster government. Ofqual chief Sally Collier and education department mandarin Jonathan Slater both "quit" leading to accusations they were being made scapegoats to try and take the heat off embattled education secretary Gavin Williamson.


Rather like previous weeks though, things kicked off with Scotland making a decision and the Westminster government eventually following suit. On Monday, UCU Scotland wrote to Scottish education secretary John Swinney saying that, where face-to-face teaching was unavoidable, staff and students should wear face masks. Speaking to the Herald, UCU Scotland's official Mary Senior said remote learning should be the norm, but where this is not possible "face coverings should be worn".

On Tuesday, Holyrood only issued advice to schools, and said face masks should be worn in secondary school whilst pupils and staff move around the school, after the World Health Organization had issued new guidance. In response, business secretary, Alok Sharma, said Westminster would stick with guidance that pupils in England should not wear masks, yet hours later Gavin Williamson performed another of his U-turns and advised secondary school students in areas with high levels of Covid to wear masks in communal areas, such as school corridors.


On Wednesday, the Welsh government left it to schools and councils to decide whether face coverings should be worn. Speaking to the BBC, UCU policy officer Jamie Insole claimed ministers were passing the buck and said "college students are older than school pupils and ministers cannot simply try and pass on guidance for schools to colleges."


UCU general secretary Jo Grady also called for face coverings to worn in colleges and universities. Speaking to Tes about face masks in colleges on Wednesday, Jo said: 'The government's own advice is that people wear face coverings when mixing with people they do not usually mix with. Where face-to-face interaction is unavoidable, colleges should ensure that face coverings, or the appropriate industry standard, are worn by staff and students.'


Jo Grady on the exams fiasco

Jo was a guest on the Tes podcast this week looking at the impact the government's U-turn on exam results has had on students and staff in colleges and universities. She also discussed the return to college in September and what college leaders need to do to keep staff and students safe.


Government refused half of college student hardship requests

Yesterday, Tes reported that the department for education awarded less than half of the extra hardship money requested by colleges trying to help students during lockdown.

According to a Freedom of Information request submitted by Tes, 16 colleges asked for extra hardship funding to help support their students throughout the coronavirus pandemic with necessities such as devices to allow them to access online learning. In total, almost £900,000 was requested but the government only provided 46% of what was needed.

Jo Grady said: 'Students from less affluent households were hardest hit by lockdown and least likely to be able to access the equipment needed to continue their studies remotely. From free school meals to exam results, this looks like a government that has to be shamed into doing anything to help those who struggle the most. Staff in our overstretched colleges are doing all they can to support students, the minimum the government can do is meet requests from hardship funds.'


English universities echo UCU call for sector bailout after A-levels fiasco

Today, Times Higher reported that university groups Universities UK and Million Plus have echoed UCU's call for government to provide a financial package to the sector to help it deal with the exams chaos.

The groups are lobbying the government to forget its punitive "restructuring regime" and offer a targeted bailout package to any English institutions pitched into financial crisis by the ministerial U-turn that lifted student number controls after the A-levels debacle.

Professor of government practice at the University of Manchester Andy Westwood said ministers who attacked higher education and criticised "low value" courses should remember two key aspects of the work done by lower-tariff universities when considering a support package: 'First, these universities were bailing out young people and ministers in that initial phase after exam results were published. Second, these are universities serving towns, cities and communities that need all the help they can get.'


UCU revolt over St Andrews Covid return plans

Staff at St Andrews University have set out their concerns regarding a return to face-to-face teaching. The Courier, reported on Saturday, that St Andrews UCU wrote to principal professor Sally Mapstone detailing members' reservations about bringing students back to campus.

UCU said it would be "rash" for the university to claim face-to-face teaching was safe, and has called for no staff or students to be penalised for continuing to work from home.

Vice-president of St Andrews UCU Ishbel Duncan said: 'The university's decisions to bring students back to St Andrews and engage in in-person teaching puts risk at the forefront of many people's minds, and St Andrews UCU seeks to contribute fully to the process of performing our work safely.'


Last updated: 28 August 2020