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Labour grandee Lord Blunkett says teachers’ unions ‘working against the interests of children’ in row over June reopening plan

Lord Blunkett said he had been ‘really surprised’ by the attitude of teaching unions to the lockdown lifting plan.

4 min read

Teaching unions opposed to the Government’s plan to get some primary schools back open on June 1 are “working against the interests of children”, former Labour education secretary Lord Blunkett has declared.

The ex-Cabinet minister urged his party to step in and “work together” with trade unions following a string of warnings over the proposal for a phased return from the coronavirus lockdown next month.

On Wednesday a joint statement from the GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, Unison and Unite unions urged the Government to “step back” from its June 1 plan and “work with us to create the conditions for a safe return to schools based on the principles and tests we have set out”.

And they accused ministers of “showing a lack of understanding about the dangers of the spread of coronavirus within schools”, with school staff “uniquely” unprotected by social distancing rules.

“Fifteen children in a class, combined with their very young age, means that classrooms of four- and five-year-olds could become sources of Covid-19 transmission and spread,” the unions said.

They added: “While we know that children generally have mild symptoms, we do not know enough about whether they can transmit the disease to adults. 

“We do not think that the government should be posing this level of risk to our society.”

But Lord Blunkett, who served as Education Secretary for four years under Tony Blair, told the BBC’s Today programme: “It’s about an attitude of mind. 

“It’s about whether we can work together to do it or whether we can work against it. 

“And I advise both teachers and their representatives, and my own frontbench, to work together to actually find a way of gradually, from 1 June, getting those children back into school."

The Labour grandee warned that continued school closures were hitting “the children of the most disadvantaged” hardest, with well-off parents able to afford catch-up tutoring and help their kids with online studies. 

“We’ve got a vast swathe of youngsters with varying degress of online teaching, some children actually getting nothing, some teachers really pulling themselves out to make this work and to be there for the children and other schools which are not,” he said.

“And if we’re not clear about this, it’s the children and the future that we will let down.”

Lord Blunkett said he had been “really surprised” by the attitude of education unions to the reopening plan, saying it was little wonder parents were “frightened about putting their children back into schools”.

He added: “I’m being deeply critical of the attitude... It’s about how can we work together to make it work as safely - we can’t 100% - as safely as possible? 

“Anyone who works against that in my view, is working against the interests of children.”

But Labour MP Richard Burgon hit back, saying: "With all due respect, he couldn't be more wrong."

"The Department for Education has been led by the science" - DfE chief scientist Osama Rahman

The call comes after the Department for Education’s chief scientific adviser told MPs on the Science and Technology Committee that he had not assessed the effectiveness of government guidance on reopening schools.

But, in a letter sent to the committee last night, Osama Rahman said he had “full confidence” in the proposals, which aim to see reception, year one and year six primary pupils brought back in reduced class sizes from June 1.

“Throughout, the Department for Education has been led by the science at all of these key decision points and that will continue to be the case throughout this pandemic,” he said.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the NEU, told the Today programme that the DfE scientist’s comments showed that the Government “doesn’t know” whether reopening schools will risk onward transmission of the virus in the community.

And she said: “If we could say that children can go back into class and there is a low or there is a reasonable risk that they will not go into school, will not infect each other, will not infect the staff in school and will not go home and infect their parents and their relatives then it would be wonderful, wouldn’t it, if they could reopen because that’s what we all want to happen.”

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