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The Education Select Committee Chair Says A Teaching Union's Campaign To Lock Down Schools Could Lead To "Disaster"

4 min read

A major teaching union has been criticised for calling for a "disastrous" schools lockdown this month by chair of the education select committee, Robert Halfon MP.

The Tory MP, who broke ranks with his own party to vote against for the extension of free school meals in the holidays, has been critical of the National Education Union's campaign to close schools during the second lockdown. 

He told PoliticsHome their position is "wrong-headed" and they should think again. 

The NEU's campaign, launched over the weekend, now has 150,000 teachers and support staff calling on the government to include schools and colleges in the November lockdown in England when they put restrictions to a Commons vote on Wednesday. 

Halfon said: "2.3 million children didn't learn in the last lockdown hardly anything at all. A study has shown they are 21 months behind. We are damaging these kids' life chances and I think it would be a disaster if schools aren't open."

He said Boris Johnson had announced the scaling up of testing in schools in his statement today and there was also support available on the Department for Education helpline, and guidance and support for schools.

"I go to schools every week, and I have not really met a teacher who doesn't want to open the schools, or get the kids in, or doesn't want to go to work, so I am mystified by the stance the NEU have taken and they should think again. 

"It won't be popular with families. This is against the spirit of the public. I think they will realise this is totally out of step with what parents and most teachers want and I'd be very surprised if this gathered steam." 

The NEU has 450,000 members, and said latest figures from the ONS estimate that one percent of primary pupils and two percent of secondary pupils have the virus and that these levels have increased dramatically since wider opening in September. 

They say that a two percent virus level means that in every three secondary classes, on any given day, you can expect two of the students to have the virus.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, told the BBC's World At One that the union is being led by the science.

She said: "There's a real problem particularly with secondary schools now. If you look at the ONS data [it shows] the age range of 11 to 18, the rate of infection is now 50 times what it was on the first of September. It's the fastest growing increase in [infection] rate of Covid of any age group. 

"On current trajectory that rate will double every two weeks."

She said in a month's time the infection rate in secondary schools will be eight percent. 

"This is a government which is very good at doing too little too late. We are arguing schools take part in this four week lockdown, and we use that time to create much better conditions for stable education. The reality is for our most deprived pupils, in the most deprived areas of the country, they are not getting into schools."

She added that 40 percent of pupils in Knowsley in Merseyside were isolating before half-term so the clock needs to be reset to try and work out how to get the best education for pupils.

However other teaching unions, like the National Association of Head Teachers, do not back a school closure. Instead they want the government to rapidly update guidance, particularly on what teachers should do if they are clinically vulnerable and are now being advised to work from home. 

A union source said there is a "hefty check list" of measures the government needs to assess before Thursday to make teachers feel safe. "

“It is right to prioritise keeping pupils in school. No-one is more committed to ensuring that children do not lose out during this time than those that have dedicated their working lives to education. Neither though does anyone want to see pupils or staff put in harm’s way.

“We are particularly concerned that, once again, there is considerable ambiguity about whether it is safe for those who are clinically vulnerable or extremely vulnerable to continue to work in a school.

"The government can back schools by confirming full reimbursement of covid costs, the continued suspension of routine inspection in January, cancellation of statutory testing and clarification on arrangements for awarding GCSE, AS and A-levels in summer 2021.”

A government source said the Department for Education is in regular contact with a range of stakeholders, which includes the NEU.  

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