Coronavirus: School Closures - NEW guidance

16 Apr 2020

PCS has negotiated with DWP on improved guidance for managers for dealing with school closures following previous detrimental and un-negotiated changes.

PCS negotiate important changes

PCS objected strongly to the arbitrary and negative changes imposed by DWP and demanded talks re-open. We are pleased to say that we have been able to convince DWP that our legitimate concerns needed addressing and we have spent the last two weeks working together to negotiate a new policy which is more supportive and flexible for our members.

A key priority for PCS was to ensure that the policy was amended to be far more supportive rather than instructive, would reduce the pressure many members told us they felt to take up places which caused them serious concern, and even an expectation that they pressure local schools into providing their children with places. We were particularly keen that the policy should place as much emphasis on the importance of the wellbeing of our members children as any other consideration.

PCS and DWP have conducted these negotiations with a genuine desire to reach a supportive and agreed approach, and we believe we have achieved that.

Support for members

The revised policy highlights the importance of a supportive approach for staff from the outset and commits that DWP "want to provide as much support as possible" to our members and help find a solution to the school and nursery closures during the pandemic. 

It goes on to state that "DWP is committed to supporting employees who have children during the coronavirus pandemic. We recognise that it is a challenging time and that the welfare of your children is of paramount importance."

PCS had already accepted that the services our members within DWP provide are critical to millions of low paid and unemployed workers - as well as those in receipt of their pension or child maintenance - and we fully support the need to ensure the benefits system continues to provide crucial assistance to the increasing number claiming benefits and using the services our members administer.

We also, however, understand that many members, will also have no choice but to call on DWP to support them as they don't have suitable childcare during this period.

It is welcome, therefore, that the first key point of the new policy recognises this when stating "we need employees to be available to work wherever possible, however we recognise that due to lack of suitable childcare this may not be possible".

Key principles in the new policy

The revised policy sets out a number of key principles which underpin the change in emphasis to a more supportive one for members.

These principles include:

  • "Government advice is that wherever possible children should be kept at home." It is expected that members will try to do this, for example by sharing the childcare with others in the household who may not be key workers
  • Where children cannot be cared for at home DWP employees should use the school/nursery places for their children wherever possible, however, where a "school/nursery place is not available employees are expected to do everything they can to find alternative childcare provision."

Importantly though the underpinning principles in this new policy also highlight:

  • It is recognised that there will be circumstances when a suitable school/nursery place will not be available and that in these cases paid special leave will be appropriate.

For example:

  • being identified as a key worker does not guarantee employees a childcare place and in some areas schools are exercising discretion on the definition of key worker and not offering places to DWP employees. This is particularly the case in Scotland but also in a number of other local authorities in England and Wales.
  • There is also a risk that some schools will close completely as a result of staff shortages, or may have to change the level of support they can provide.

PCS would highlight to members, including those with managerial responsibility,that the policy recognises as a key principle "it might also be the case that a parent has concerns about using a school/nursery place even if one is available because they are unsure whether it is suitable for their child. In these cases, special leave with pay may be appropriate".

It is vital that members raise such cases with their line manager, and we would urge our members with line managerial responsibility to reflect the supportive emphasis of this policy and contact HR Casework for advice if you are unsure.

Unsuitable school/nursery places

PCS has been able to negotiate an extension to the circumstances which may fall within the criteria for an unsuitable school/nursery place.

These include:

  • If a child is in the vulnerable group (see the link in the policy)
  • If a pre-school age child has previously been cared for by a family member or childminder, has never been to a nursery or their normal nursery is closed. There will be no expectation placed upon parents/guardians of pre-school age children to send them to nursery if they have not been in this environment before, or to another nursery if this might cause distress
  • If a child has special educational needs
  • the child falls within the Public Health England definition of being at increased risk of severe illness from coronavirus and/or a school is unwilling to accept your child
  • The child’s usual school or nursery doesn’t have a place and the only provision available is at a different school/nursery.

The Q&A scenarios at the end of the policy go on to include circumstances which might be considered under the final bullet point above, and these include where a child has been subjected to bullying.

Important to ensure this policy is implemented properly

PCS has attempted to deliver a policy that provides for those members who need to make alternative arrangements due to a change in childcare provision, while also recognising that members should do all they can to find suitable arrangements which allow them to work "wherever possible".

We have achieved a policy that places the welfare of the child at the forefront of decision making, and while it is expected members will do all you can to make suitable arrangements and be as flexible as possible, no member should feel pressured or made to place their child in a facility which they do not feel is suitable for their child.

Members should raise any decision they believe fails to provide them with the necessary support with their local rep and escalate to group if they cannot resolve it locally.

PCS is confident we can reach agreement on an escalation route for cases specific to this policy and we will advise members and branches of any further developments.

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