Can I refuse to teach or work in a school?

Article by Naomh Gibson

The role of a teacher is something which is often the subject of debate in education. Certainly, key policy developments in the past decade have seen the duties and responsibilities of teaching staff diversified and broadened.

For example, from 2015 onwards, some teachers have felt that the government’s Prevent strategy, which obliges teachers to refer to Police pupils they suspect of engaging in some sort of terrorist activity or radical behaviour, has turned them into “the secret service of the public sector” (Gary Kaye, NUT 2016 conference). Similarly, while the importance of safeguarding and the connected reported requirements are appreciated, recent developments appear to align teaching staff more closely with doctors and caring professionals rather than educators.

And now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it looks as though the role is about to expand again: to sacrificial lamb. Recently, the Government has proposed an earliest possible date for re-opening of schools, 1 June 2020, just now 2 weeks away. The proposal is for a phased return, beyond the children of key workers and vulnerable children who are currently attending, to begin with Primary School pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6.

Understandably, this announcement has caused something of a row between the Government, Academy chiefs, local councils, and teaching unions. On 8 May 2020, a joint statement was released by GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, UNISON and Unite calling the Government to “step back” from the 1 June date, and setting out principles and tests to be applied and met before schools could be safely re-opened (see full statement here).

As the row rages on, and it remains to be seen what measures the Government will adopt to ensure teaching staff are safe, many are asking the question: What if I don’t feel safe, can I refuse to teach or work in a school?

There is something a grey area created by the recent advice that anyone who cannot do their job effectively from home should go back to work. Your school might be satisfied with how remote teaching has functioned during the period of closure, and allow this to continue. However, if your school considers that remote teaching is not adequately addressing the school’s needs, they are entitled to ask you to return to work. You are not, however, forced to attend or to do all of your usual duties if you think there is a serious danger.

Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 allows employees to remove themselves from a dangerous workplace with no repercussions or recriminations (note, this will not apply to self-employed contractors like extra-curricular coaches or peripatetic staff). This will require you to have a reasonable belief of ‘serious or imminent danger’ which you could ‘not reasonably have been expected to avert’. With COVID-19 and its ubiquitous infection method, it is hard to imagine what a member of teaching staff could be expected to do to avert the danger – this is not, as a crude example, as simple as mopping up or avoiding a spill that someone might trip on.

Whether or not your school environment is dangerous depends on its particular circumstances, so be prepared to gather information to have that argument if needs be. For example, whether the dimensions of the classrooms or hallways are too small to allow for social distancing, or recording the amount of times during the day there was a breach of the 2 metre limit, or any near-misses. Maintaining social distancing is likely to be the single greatest risk to any re-opened school, especially those working with younger pupils or children with SEN/D, or any otherwise tactile pupil. Oddly enough, 2 of the identified classes for re-opening (Reception, Year 1) are the most likely to struggle with social distancing (see: children swapping lunches, sharing or fighting over toys and resources, hugging one another).

As an employee, you have a right to be made aware of the risks you face as part of your job, and how your employer is controlling them. This assessment of risks is (unsurprisingly) called a risk assessment and is part of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (often referred to as “the Management Regs”).

You have the right to ask your school when their last risk assessment was conducted, what the outcome was, and what new steps they have taken as a result – if they won’t tell you, they are breaking the law. Either your school is not giving you information required by Regulation 10 of the Management Regs, or they haven’t met their duties under Regulation 3 of the same.

Any BAME teaching staff may be especially concerned given the media coverage on the rate of COVID-19 infections and deaths within their community. If concerned, you should write to your employer and ask them to confirm that your BAME identity will be factored into the equality impact assessment of the staffing arrangements, as you are potentially more vulnerable to COVID-19 by merit of the same.

For those considering that a mask or gloves might be necessary for them, for example because you work with pupils requiring Team Teach etc. interventions which cannot be avoided, you do not have to purchase this yourself – your school should provide this under the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992.

If you have a recognised vulnerability, the Government advice for you remains to stay at home. As per the below list, you may be astonished as to which relatively common conditions (such as obesity, asthma, or pregnancy) categorises a person as vulnerable:

  • Aged 70 or older (regardless of medical conditions)
  •  Under 70 with an underlying health condition such as those listed below
  • Anyone instructed to get a flu jab as an adult each year on medical grounds
  • Chronic (long-term) respiratory diseases, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema or bronchitis
  • Chronic heart disease, such as heart failure
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Chronic liver disease, such as hepatitis
  • Chronic neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), a learning disability or cerebral palsy
  • Diabetes
  • Problems with your spleen – e.g. sickle cell disease or if you have had your spleen removed
  • A weakened immune system as the result of conditions such as HIV and Aids, or medicines such as steroid tablets or chemotherapy
  • Being seriously overweight (a BMI of 40 or above)
  • Those who are pregnant

If you are vulnerable for one or more of the above reasons but are still being forced to go in to school, you may be able to claim disability discrimination. To pre-empt any issues, it would be prudent to write to your school and remind them of your vulnerable status and ask them to confirm that they have factored into their planning that you will be unable to attend the premises.

If a member of your household is considered vulnerable, unfortunately it doesn’t look like this automatically exempts you from returning to school, but you should still raise this issue with your manager. You may be able to ask for this as unpaid leave to take care of the person as a dependent, assuming this is within your contract. If this is not an option, you should ask your school to enable you to work from home.

If you have raised your concerns but your school does not agree these are valid reasons and continue to insist that you attend the premises, refusing to do so might prompt them to take disciplinary action on the basis that you are breaching your employment contract.

How schools react to staff concerns (and resistance) will certainly depend on the events in the next 2 weeks, and whether or not the Government revises their proposed date in light of developing data. If you feel your school is not taking your concerns seriously, you should seek the support of your union. If you are not already a member and have concerns about the cost of joining, some unions offer reduced or delayed joining and membership fees on request.

If you have any queries regarding this article, you can contact Naomh’s clerks on 0121 237 6035 or clerks@halcyonchambers.com. Naomh is a first six pupil accepting instructions from July 2020 onwards.

Revised admissions appeals procedure approved

Article by Naomh Gibson

As per our earlier article, the Government has now updated their guidance on how primary and secondary schools should organise and run their pupil admissions appeals in light of COVID-19. The updated guidance is publicly available online (here).

As of 24 April 2020, temporary changes have been made to the School Admission Appeal Regulations 2012 in order to accommodate appeals during this unprecedented public health crisis. The emergency regulations are called the School Admissions (England) (Coronavirus) (Appeals Arrangements) (Amendment) Regulations 2020, which gives effect to these temporary amendments, and will remain in force until 31 January 2021.

The temporary regulations only apply to appeals lodged between 24 April 2020 and 31 January 2021, unless you lodged an appeal before 24 April which has not yet been decided. It is anticipated by DfE that by 31 January 2021, there will no longer be a need for temporary regulations, however to avoid the expiry of the measures from prejudicing any appeals that are already in progress on this date, the temporary regulations will still apply as long as the appeal was lodged between 24 April 2020 and 31 January 2021.

The temporary regulations take precedence over the Appeals Code if there is a conflict between the two. Much of the usual appeal admissions procedure remain in place, with the general scheme of amendments being to allow for more generous timeframes and greater flexibility on panel quorum to avoid adjournments or delays.

For example, usually when a panel member withdraws from a panel of 3 members, proceedings must be postponed until the return of that panel member, or a replacement must be appointed, and the appeal reheard. However, where COVID-19 has meant this is not reasonably practicable, the temporary regulations allow a panel made up of at least 2 members to continue to consider and determine the appeal.

Further, the admission authority must now allow you at least 28 calendar days to appeal from when they send the decision letter, an increase from the usual 20 school days, and another 28 calendar days’ written notice of any other deadline associated with your appeal. The temporary regulations also mean that admission authorities must review the deadline for lodging an appeal included in any decisions sent to parents after 28 February 2020 where that deadline still refers to ‘school days’, rather than calendar days or a date within that period.

If you have any queries regarding this article, you can contact Naomh’s clerks on 0121 237 6035 or clerks@halcyonchambers.com. Naomh is a first six pupil accepting instructions from July 2020 onwards.

Law in the time of COVID-19: making a successful winding up petition

Article by Naomh Gibson

On 23 April 2020, the Government announced emergency measures to protect commercial tenants, to include a moratorium on evictions and a temporary ban on the the use of statutory demands (made between 1 March 2020 and 30 June 2020) and winding up petitions presented from Monday 27 April, through to 30 June, in circumstances where a company cannot pay its bills due to COVID-19.

At current time, the scope of the intended restriction and precisely how it will be implemented is unclear. This has understandably left some wondering in which circumstances a winding up petition might be permitted to proceed.

The High Court has now provided such guidance, in Shorts Gardens LLB v London Borough of Camden Council [2020] EWHC 1001 (Ch). This case concerned two applications to restrain presentation of two separate winding-up petitions against different companies by Camden and Preston councils. The petitions relate to unpaid liability orders from national non-domestic rates and certain unpaid costs orders arising out of earlier litigation.

The joint applicant (Saint Benedict’s Land Trust (“SBLT”) and Shorts Gardens) denied liability for the rates and sought injunctive relief on the basis that the debts in question were genuinely disputed on substantial grounds or were subject to cross-claims. The applicant also argued that it would be inappropriate for a winding up petition to be proceeded with, ‘until 14 days after COVID-19 has been controlled through vaccination and/or the Government make an announcement that it is safe for the United Kingdom to come out of the lockdown’.

The press announcement from Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy in respect of the emergency measures contained a “Notes to Editors”, which provides as follows (emphasis added):

“Under these measures, any winding-up petition that claims that the company is unable to pay its debts must first be reviewed by the court to determine why. The law will not permit petitions to be presented, or winding-up orders made, where the company’s inability to pay is the result of COVID-19….”

However, upon his analysis, Mr Justice Snowden noted that he did not consider either applicant company to be in financial difficulty from the information provided. In fact, the reverse appeared to be true, as both companies were each disputing the underlying liability orders, and SBLT was asserting a cross-claim. In an earlier hearing, the applicant companies put forward in their written submissions that they were not facing liquidity or operational challenges.

Overall, there was a total lack of financial information to support a finding that the companies were unable to pay their debts due to COVID-19, beyond witness statements from the director/trustee of SBLT and her legal representative. The veracity of these statements no doubt had to be carefully weighed, in light of the fact that a general civil restraint order was made against SBLT at an earlier date as a result of their history of ‘meritless and abusive applications’ in an attempt to avoid payment.

The learned Judge also noted the proposed measures were ‘overwhelmingly likely’ to be limited to companies in certain identified sectors of economic activity, and to relate to statutory demands and petitions based upon claims by landlords for arrears of rent. It was held that these extraordinary measures evidently intend to give relief to those facing genuine hardship, such as tenants in the retail or hospitality industry, and could not be taken advantage of by repeat-offenders like the applicant companies who were the subject of ‘outstanding court orders and longstanding arrears… owing under liability orders to local authorities’.

This decision demonstrates that the Government’s emergency measures are not carte blanche for companies to refuse paying their debts. Any Directors or limited companies facing cash-flow issues from COVID-19 must be very careful in communicating their position to creditors when seeking to buy time to make payment.

If you require any advice on your options during this unprecedented crisis, Halcyon Chambers has a dedicated Commercial and Chancery team and is still taking instructions, including for remote hearings. Please contact our clerks for further information.

Admissions appeals still going ahead subject to revised procedure

Article by Naomh Gibson

While the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and schools currently remain closed, families who have been carefully planning ahead for their child’s education may have received some bad news yesterday. Thursday 16 April 2020 marked National Primary Offer Day, when primary school places were confirmed for thousands of pupils for the academic year 2020/2021, starting September this year. Applications for primary school places were made before the January deadline, when COVID-19 was for many people an international news item with no relevance to life in the UK.

There is always some movement to places offered following National Offer Days for both primary and secondary schools, as parents accept or reject places. You may find that your preferred choice becomes available within several days due to this re-shuffling. The statistics currently available suggest that the rate of successful applications is down from last year due to an increase in applications in major cities, including Birmingham.

For those who are not able to secure their preference through the waiting list process, they may avail themselves of their statutory right of appeal in accordance with the Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998.

The unprecedented situation has many parents and carers wondering whether they will still be able to exercise this right to appeal. The good news: the Department for Education has announced plans to temporarily relax procedural regulations from 24 April 2020 until 31 January 2021 so that hearings can go ahead despite the lockdown.

Appeal panels are usually held in person, which would break the current restriction on gatherings of more than 2 people. Therefore this requirement has been amended so that the hearings will no longer need to be attended in person, and the panel may be reduced from 3 members to 2 if one member has to withdraw for any reason.

DfE have also relaxed the regulations to allow appeals to be entirely paper-based, as in decided only on what written arguments have been submitted. It is not anticipated this will be a popular substitute compared to remote hearings however due to obligations around natural justice and procedural fairness.

The process therefore will be revised as follows:-

In your rejection letter, you will be advised of the appeals process for that particular school – follow this. You may notice a change from previous years that the admission authority for the school has set new or revised deadlines for appeals to be submitted in certain circumstances.

The admission authority must now allow you at least 28 calendar days to appeal from when they send the decision letter, an increase from the usual 20 school days, and another 28 calendar days’ written notice of any other deadline associated with your appeal.

Use this time wisely to prepare an appeal letter with any evidence you think supports your position. At the earliest opportunity, provide the admission authority with your dates of unavailability and preferred modes of remote attendance, to ensure they do not arrange this when you are not available or by a method you cannot use.

Appellants will now be given 14 calendar days’ written notice of an appeal hearing (although appellants can waive their right to this), an increase again from the usual 10 school days. All deadlines for the hearing of appeals must be as soon as reasonably practicable.

The admissions authority may require some date flexibility in order to secure the attendance of suitably independent panel members, if these individuals are unexpectedly engaged in other key worker duties, caring for a sick relative, or have taken ill themselves. Communicate regularly with the admissions authority’s designated clerk to ensure clarity.

If you fail to communicate with the clerk, or cannot take part in a remote hearing and an alternative date is not practical, the appeal may go ahead and be decided on the written information submitted.

While remote hearings can be daunting, you have the ‘home turf’ advantage of being able to attend the hearing in an environment in which you feel more comfortable. Please see our blog post here which details the technologies commonly used for remote hearings (NB: this guide is written for legal professionals but may still help).

Ultimately, your success at appeal will depend on whether the appeals panel consider: firstly, the school’s admission criteria were properly followed; and secondly, the admission criteria complies with the School admissions code (‘the Code’). The Code is statutory guidance that schools are legally obliged to follow when carrying out duties relating to school admissions. This is publicly available online (here). You may ask the admissions authority to provide you with a fresh copy of the school’s admission criteria if required. 

While the procedure for your appeal has to be altered, the way in which your appeal is decided will not be different; Schools cannot use the current situation as an excuse to unfairly deny your child a place.

To use some common examples, this means a child still cannot be rejected because the admission authority:

  • Took into account any other conditions when considering your child’s application, other than the oversubscription criteria published in their admission arrangements;
  • Took into account any previous schools attended by your child;
  • Gave extra priority to children whose parents ranked their preferred schools in a particular order;
  • Took into account reports from previous schools about your child’s past behaviour, attendance, attitude or achievement;
  • Took into account your older children’s behaviour, attendance, attitude or achievement if they attend(ed) your preferred school.

These procedural changes to the regulations will come into effect, subject to legislation, on 24 April 2020. If you require any further information on the timeline of this legislation, you may contact DfE’s designated coronavirus helpline on 0800 046 8687. Lines are open Monday to Friday from 8am to 6pm and weekends 10am to 4pm.

If you have any queries regarding this article, you can contact Naomh’s clerks on 0121 237 6035 or clerks@halcyonchambers.com. Naomh is a first six pupil accepting instructions from July 2020 onwards.