A new legal duty on schools to provide remote learning to pupils who are at home because of Covid-19 has been deemed “draconian” and “demoralising”.
Ministers will use powers under the Coronavirus Act from Thursday to require schools to offer pupils who are not in class the same lessons as those in class.
But headteachers’ unions have described the legal direction on immediate access to remote education as “unnecessary” and unhelpful at a time when schools are under pressure due to a rising number of Covid-19 cases.
A teaching union has also warned that the duty risks sending a message to staff that the Government “does not trust them” which could lower morale.
Earlier this month, the Government published a temporary continuity direction regarding the provision of remote education under the Coronavirus Act 2020.
The direction, which will come into force on Thursday, aims to reassure parents that schooling will not be disrupted if students have to self-isolate.
It comes as Government figures showed that nearly half of secondary schools had one or more pupils self-isolating last week due to potential contact with a case of Covid-19 inside the school.
But Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said schools already know what they are expected to provide to self-isolating pupils from the Government guidance.
She said: “This is why we feel that the draconian measure of a legal order is unnecessary, heavy-handed and sends out a demoralising message to schools that the Government doesn’t trust them.
“At a time when schools are under severe pressure because of the impact of rising Covid rates, this really isn’t helpful.
“It would be much more helpful for the Government to focus on how it can do more to support schools in delivering high-quality remote learning, including by providing many more laptops to pupils who don’t have them.”
Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Most people will see the introduction of this new legal responsibility to provide remote education precisely for what it is, a cynical attempt by Government to look strong by acting tough.”
He added: “This should have been the moment when Government put some real effort behind their promise to level up, by committing to get fast internet to every home and a device to every pupil, so that no child misses out on part of their education for want of a computer.”
Siobhain McDonagh, Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden, has also questioned how the duty can be imposed when she says many pupils still do not have access to laptops or internet connections at home.
She said: “At a time when schools are under immense pressure encouraging children to catch up on all of the learning that they’ve lost, the Government have slipped these changes in with little scrutiny.
“How can a school meet their obligation of remote teaching if their pupils do not have the devices or connections required to log in from home?”
Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, added: “Schools do not need emergency powers to be enacted to compel them to continue to provide remote teaching for pupils and the introduction of this duty risks sending a message to schools that the Government does not trust them to act in pupils’ best interests, thereby undermining morale at what is already an enormously difficult time for teachers and school leaders.”
An explanatory note on the Department for Education’s website on the duty, says: “The intention of this direction is to provide legal certainty for all involved in the education sector, including parents, teachers and schools themselves.”
It adds: “The Secretary of State for Education may apply for an injunction against the responsible body of any school which fails to comply with the direction, requiring it to do so.
“Taking legal action, however, is a last resort and the department will take a proportionate and fair approach to assessing the adequacy of remote education provision.
“Where concerns or issues have been identified or raised by schools themselves, the department’s first priority will be to help schools with their remote education plans and provision.”