DfE lobs a brick through the Student Travel Window (if you’re a nurse)

Version one of DfE’s guidance on “student movement and plans for the end of term” was spectacularly unhelpful on issues relating to work-based learning.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

In it, placements were only mentioned in relation to healthcare students, and even then said that because such students are considered “essential workers” they should therefore remain in their placements until the end of term – raising the grim prospect that a group of students already at greater risk of infection might be trapped.

Now we have new expanded guidance for students on placement. Be careful what you wish for, and all that.

Generally, providers are told to reschedule and rearrange placements or simulation work due to take place between 9 December and the end of term to ensure that students who wish to return home during the travel window are able to do so. Easier said than done in many cases – particularly where placement supply in all sectors is already tight – but OK.

There are inevitably though some exceptions – and here we have a classic contortion. On the one hand, DfE recognises there are limited circumstances in which some placements may need to continue beyond 9 December. But on the other hand, all students should be able to return home during the student travel window between 3 and 9 December, if they choose to do so (as long as they are not required to self-isolate).

And this includes all students on placements, including those listed in its exemptions section. In these circumstances, providers are told to work with these students to rearrange the placements where possible.

I know, I know. So just to summarise. Shut down placements by Dec 9th. Except for placements that need to continue, in which case students (living away from home) can carry on beyond Dec 9th, but it’s their choice if they do so.

They need to “consider their living arrangements” and think about “access to mass asymptomatic testing” if they decide to continue after 9 December because they “run the risk of having to undertake a period of isolation of up to 14 days at university” if they contracted coronavirus or were identified as a contact of someone who had. And providers (and or placement workplaces like hospitals and schools) that are participating in the mass asymptomatic testing programme are told to ensure that students staying after 9 December have access to a test before returning home.

This does appear to mean that the “Student Travel Window” (which presumably allows students to break travel restriction rules likely to be in place in some Tiers) won’t be restricted to the published dates for students in these circumstances, although we’d need to see the statutory instrument accompanying the post-Dec 2nd period, and who knows how that will work for restrictions on travelling to areas in the devolved nations.

Who’s exempt? Some course placements are apparently essential to the coronavirus response (the brazen contradiction of supposed supernumerary status never fails to shock) and if a student is defined as a critical worker whilst on their placement and that placement is considered to be operationally essential (for example, there would be “workforce implications” if the placement ended on or before 9 December) then that placement may continue – but as I said, only if the student “chooses” to carry on.

There are some specific courses that can take advantage of this exemption – students have to be in receipt of Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) placement funding or be able to access support through the Learning Support Fund, or have access to the NHS bursary – and there’s a specific list of professions this applies to in the guidance too.

In addition postgraduate and final year undergraduate initial teaching training (ITT) trainees can continue their placement in person until the end of term (but only where they are operationally essential and where the student is content to do so), as can final year veterinary students and postgraduate research students.

Meanwhile students who are undertaking paid employment as part of their course can also continue in their employment beyond the 9 December if they choose to do so.

This notion of choice is interesting across the examples. If students are being paid for their placement and need the money, “choice” isn’t as easy as it looks. Even if they’re not, the extent to which their presence is operationally essential is going to impact whether students feel they can take advantage of the exemption. If they’re being assessed – formally or informally by a potential employer – they will fear that taking advantage of the exemption will mark them out. Choice my eye.

More importantly, where the number if hours is important, there will be major pressure to soldier on. A whole clutch of healthcare students that have been required to self-isolate this term are finding it increasingly difficult to make up the hours needed to pass their placement. Rumours have been swirling around student nurse communities on social media over the past couple of weeks that the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) has suspended the required minimum hours to qualify – but they’re not true. That problem is just being dumped back on universities and placement providers to work with individuals to help them meet the requirements, but how?

And if you’re a student already worried about this situation facing placement and provider staff that are also worried, how much of a “choice” is Dec 9th for you if “going home” would make it even worse?

One other piece of news about the Student Travel Window. The Department for Transport has announced that admin fees enabling students to rearrange train journeys during the window are to be suspended – so if you have an advance ticket for, say, the Sunday, you can now rebook for the Thursday without paying a fee.

You’ll still have to pay the difference in the ticket price though, and advance fares for that week are now very hard to come by. So if you were going home on an advance ticket for £17 and were having to face paying £210 for a walk up fare on a tightly packed train, you can now pay £200 for a walk up fare on a tightly packed train, all thanks to Grant Shapps.

What’s that you ask? Are engineering works suspended during the STW? No. No they are not.

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