West Sussex schools call for better timed and coordinated guidance from government

A West Sussex County Council scrutiny committee has sent a ‘must try harder’ message to the Department for Education about its guidance to schools during the pandemic.

Covid schools guidance signs  (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
Covid schools guidance signs (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

During a meeting on Thursday, the committee heard from headteachers, governors and the youth cabinet about the impact lockdown has had and the struggles faced.

Now they have called on Nigel Jupp, cabinet member for education and skills, to put pen to paper and raise a few issues with the government.

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High on that list was the need for better timed and coordinated guidance for schools.

During the meeting, the guidance was described as ‘lacking a considerable amount of clarity’ by some and ‘woefully inadequate’ when it came to special education.

By contrast, the efforts of the county council to get that information out to schools was largely praised, though there were concerns that the sheer volume was often too difficult to manage.

Trevor Cristin, director of education for the Diocese of Chichester, said communication with the council had been ‘clear and open’.

He added: “It’s been very challenging for our schools often to interpret the Department for Education guidance.

“This is just as applicable to local authorities too and they have led with clarity and been very supportive to our schools.”

The headteachers and governors were very careful with their words, recognising the unprecedented situation faced by the council – but there were concerns about the speed of decision-making.

Some schools felt greater authority was needed.

Mark Anstiss, of Felpham Community College, described how he had looked elsewhere for some information and described the council as having a ‘risk averse philosophy’.

He added: “When we’re dealing with a pandemic we need things very quickly and we do require quick responses.

“West Sussex tends to do a very good legal belt and braces job but sometimes that means that things are a little bit too late.

“Good is good enough. Get it out, get it to schools so schools can benefit from it quickly.”

Also on the list of issues for the Department for Education was the need for more funding to counter the expenses shouldered by schools during the pandemic; the need for clarity over exams and testing; and a call for the closure of schools to be considered only as a last resort.

The committee also asked Mr Jupp to consider carrying out online surveys with parents, children and schools to help the council stay on track with any support needed.

Mr Jupp said: “We’ve been travelling in uncharted waters.

“Who would have believed at the beginning of March how our lives would be disrupted – not only in our general lives but our schools.

“There is no doubt that Covid has set an exam for schools and the West Sussex education department that they had little training for and absolutely no time for revision.”