Five Ws: Question areas to inform discussions about a return to work in FE branches

Any risk assessment should eliminate risks or reduce risks to the lowest level as is reasonably practicable. In the current circumstances of Covid-19 this means all staff and students working from home where possible and ensuring that if there is any return to the workplace the risks of infection and transmission are controlled and remain low. Given Covid-19 can lead to severe illness or death and there is no cure or vaccine in place, the risk level is at the highest level possible. The likelihood of a risk causing harm then depends upon the control measures implemented which should reduce the risk to low levels.

The risk assessment will need to consider who employers propose to return to onsite work, what activities will be taking place, and where those activities will be happening – Why should these people / groups / activities be involved / take place? Where are the activities to take place? When will the activities begin? The risk assessment should consider all these ‘Ws’ so that all potential hazards and risks can be identified, then eliminated or reduced to low levels. The risk assessment should thus inform any strategic decision making on what a return to work could look like to ensure any decisions prioritise the health, safety and welfare of staff and students.

WHO? Who are the students and staff affected by any proposed return to onsite working and who will be expected to return to college? No one is suggesting that everyone is to return. Government guidance for FE only talks about some form of face-to-face delivery before the end of summer term, for some students, phased, and in small numbers. Identify who the college are proposing to be included in any pre-summer return and include all impacted groups in the risk assessment. Have they considered those who are at greater potential risk of infection or poorer outcomes from Covid-19? – Government guidance identifies three categories including those with specific long-term health conditions, older age groups, pregnancy, and emerging evidence suggests people of BAME background, and males are at greater risk. Have they considered those with caring responsibilities who are unable to attend the workplace? Based on who can or should return to the workplace have they considered the safe staffing levels required to 2 implement their plans and safe working arrangements? Government is not saying a definite WHEN for FE, so consider and deal with all other Ws for each group before agreeing WHEN.

WHY? Why are colleges proposing to bring back these students and staff? Do they really need to come back? Why can’t remote working continue until UCU’s first three tests can be met by Government? Why return before the risks of Covid-19 transmission can be significantly reduced? Why return these groups before test and trace systems are in place to quickly identify and control new infections and prevent spread across workplaces and the local community? Why prioritise these staff, students and activities? Discuss the rationale for their return, the attributes of those students (family Covid-19 vulnerabilities e.g. BAME etc.), their educational needs, and the timing of the return. What other options, e.g. for alternative remote delivery, have been considered and why aren’t they an adequate alternative for these students? What could we do to make the alternatives work? Why are these the right staff to bring back? Discuss the rationale for their return, and the attributes of those staff affected, including Covid-19 vulnerabilities, mental health, transport options and if they are available to return in a safe and healthy way? Can we achieve necessary delivery with volunteers and/ or what do we need to do to make that happen? Try to establish that home working and online delivery is currently the default position unless there is a sufficient reason why this cannot be made to work, and the five tests are met.

WHERE? Where will the proposed staff and students return to? Which buildings and spaces on campus will these students and staff work, learn, and circulate in and through? Identify all the spaces that will need to be considered for risk assessments such as infection control measures (for safe physical distancing, increased cleaning frequency and access to appropriate welfare facilities) What other building considerations have been risk assessed – water quality, appropriate ventilation, fire safety measures, pest control, security.

WHAT? What are the health, safety and welfare risks associated with the college proposals? What does a safe return to college look like for these students and staff? 3 A thorough risk assessment of all spaces classrooms/learning settings/communal areas indoors and outdoors is required in terms of physical distancing and hygiene, to identify safe ways of working. What tasks will students and staff be required to undertake? Identify the tasks that need to be risk assessed in order to agree safe ways of working. What travel is required and how can we establish safe ways of travelling? What PPE will be required? Identify the spaces and tasks where the only way to achieve safe ways of working requires PPE. Identify what PPE is necessary, and how and when it will be reliably available.

WHEN? Only after there is agreement over what a safe return for any groups of students and staff looks like, can a date for their return be agreed. This discussion should take account of the five tests, including consideration of factors external to the college referenced in the first three tests. Test the necessity of any educational needs being addressed before summer, or whether this can be deferred until autumn – is the net educational benefit commensurate with the potential risk to students and staff?

Unions set out fives tests Government and colleges must meet before staff and students can return

13 May 2020

Staff and student safety must be guaranteed before colleges can reopen, said unions representing staff in further education, as they set out five tests that must be met by government and colleges.

UCU, the GMB, UNISON, Unite and the National Education Union (NEU) called for stringent hygiene measures, protection for vulnerable people and isolation for all suspected cases to avoid colleges becoming Covid-19 hotspots.

The unions said that social distancing plans had to extend beyond the classroom to cover things like travelling to and from college and socialising. To help deal with those challenges, they said that staff and students who can work from home should continue to do so.

The unions were responding to government guidance released last night setting out how some students may return to face-to-face teaching in colleges from 1 June. The guidance stated that:

“We will ask secondary schools, sixth form and further education colleges to offer some face-to-face support to supplement the remote education of year 10 and year 12 students who are due to take key exams next year, alongside the full time provision they are offering to priority groups.”

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘Staff and student health is the number one priority and nobody should be going back to college until it is safe to do so. The government needs to work us to address the national challenges, while individual colleges should work with their local union reps to address the unique challenges they will face.’

GMB national officer Stuart Fegan said: ‘The public expects the government to put in place all reasonable steps to ensure the safety of students and workers in further education institutions. What the joint trade unions are calling for in these five key tests is reasonable, proportionate and wholly necessary.’

NEU joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: ‘Safety has to be the overriding concern. Planning for wider reopening should focus on ensuring safety is assured if and when the college reopens, not on meeting Government deadlines which may well prove unrealistic.’

UNISON national education officer Leigh Powell said: ‘Managers and unions must work together to make colleges safe places to work and study. Cutting corners by skimping on full risk assessments and rigorous cleaning regimes, or limiting provision of protective equipment, risk pushing us back to square one. Staff and students need to be know that everything that can be done to protect their health has been done.’

Unite national officer Siobhan Endean said: ‘Unite workplace representatives are at the forefront of dealing with the Covid-19 crisis in the education sector. These five tests set out a clear roadmap to reopening at a time when the health and safety of all staff, students and others can be assured. Risk assessments are crucial to this and can be carried out effectively where Unite members remain central to the process, with appropriate adjustments being made, enforcement in place and provision of PPE where necessary to ensure the ongoing health of all involved.’

The five tests

Test 1: Much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases

The new case count must be much lower than it is now, with a sustained downward trend and confidence that new cases are known and counted promptly. And the Government must have extensive, open and transparent arrangements in place for testing, contact tracing and isolating those with Covid-19 symptoms.


Test 2: A national plan for social distancing

The Government must have a national plan in place which includes parameters for both appropriate physical distancing and safe levels of social mixing in all further education settings. To help ensure physical distancing during travel and at colleges, all staff and students who can work and study from home must continue to do so.
Test 3: Comprehensive testing

Comprehensive access to regular testing for students and staff, with isolation for all suspected cases, to ensure colleges don’t become hotspots for Covid-19. In addition to routine testing, protocols to be in place to ensure testing across whole college sites and other non-college work-based learning sites whenever a confirmed case of Covid-19 occurs.


Test 4: A whole college strategy for health and safety

Risk assessments and safe ways of working for all tasks and spaces within a college should be established with relevant staff and unions in advance. This should include regular deep cleaning and stringent hygiene measures. Where PPE is identified as required by risk assessments, supplies of these are secured before re-opening of affected areas. Strategy to be clearly communicated to all stakeholders.


Test 5: Protection for the vulnerable

Vulnerable staff, and staff who live with vulnerable people, must work from home, fulfilling their professional duties to the extent that is possible. Plans must specifically address the protection of all staff, students and members of their households who are vulnerable to Covid-19.

Students’ fear over exam assessment

Almost half of university applicants think that the coronavirus crisis will have a negative impact on their chances of getting into their first-choice university, according to research from the Sutton Trust

The research also found that working class applicants are more likely to be worried about the impact on them than their middle-class peers (51% vs 43%), and that students at private schools were almost twice as likely to be regularly completing work and receiving feedback than those in state schools (57% v 30%).

UCU said colleges and universities needed to make greater use of contextual data so that students progress according to their achievements. The union also backed the Sutton Trust’s call to move to a system in the future where students apply to university after they receive their results.

Last month, UCU warned that disadvantaged students could be the big losers under new assessment plans to replace exams this summer. Research shows that high-achieving, disadvantaged students are more likely to have their grades under-predicted than their wealthier contemporaries.

UCU general secretary, Jo Grady, said: ‘This survey appears to confirm fears that it is disadvantaged students who are most likely to lose out under this new system. Research shows that disadvantaged students fare badly when it comes to predicted grades, and they are less likely to be able to put life on hold to delay sitting exams, or have access to the tools required to navigate any appeals system.

‘We are worried about the numbers of students considering deferring or cancelling their studies, particularly in non-Russell Group universities. This could be a big step backwards for widening participation.

‘The context in which qualifications are achieved needs to be considered by colleges and universities. Not all achievements are equal and they should not be seen as such. Colleges and universities will need to make greater use of contextual data.

‘Allowing students to apply to university after they receive their results would bring us into line with the rest of the world, eliminate the use of controversial unconditional offers and ensure that university offers are based on actual achievement rather than unreliable estimates of potential.’


Government support package for universities doesn’t provide protection the sector needs

3 May 2020 | last updated: 4 May 2020

Responding to the support package announced by the Department for Education, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said:

‘While it is encouraging that the government appears to have recognised the need to provide support for universities, this package does not deliver the protection or stability that students, staff and the communities they serve so desperately need. The Office for Budget Responsibility says universities are most at risk of financial pain from the current crisis and they need more than IOUs to solve the problems they face.

‘The student number cap is a misnomer as it will enable the wealthiest universities to substantially grow their domestic student base at the expense of other more locally-focussed institutions. We cannot afford to let this dog-eat-dog approach risk substantial damage both to our country’s academic capacity and local economies which universities are such an important part of.

‘Instead of kicking the can down the road, the government must underwrite funding lost from a fall in domestic and international student numbers and remove incentives for universities to compete against each other at a time when we need to be pulling together.’

A report by London Economics for UCU highlighted a £2.5bn loss of income from tuition fees and teaching grants.

The Office for Budget Responsibility said education would be the sector hardest hit by the coronavirus crisis, with the impact likely to be felt most by universities