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MP brands unions ‘utterly disgraceful’ as they insist schools cannot reopen in September with two-metre rule

Jonathan Gullis was a teacher before becoming an MP (

4 min read

Education unions were attacked by Conservative MPs as they warned that schools will likely be unable to reopen in September if the Government’s two-metre social distancing rule remains in place.

Giving evidence to the Commons education select committee, leaders from the ASCL, NASUWT, UNISON and NEU educational unions agreed that schools should reopen as soon as is safe.

But joint general secretary of the National Education Union Dr Mary Bousted warned that bringing children back would not be possible unless current two-metre distancing rules are scrapped. 

Her comments drew a strong reaction from Tory MP Jonathan Gullis, who branded the unions’ responses to schools returning “utterly disgraceful”. 

Dr Bousted told the committee: “We want schools to reopen as quickly as possible and we’ve produced an education recovery plan. 

“The problem we have in England, in particular, is that we have some of the highest pupil-teacher ratios, we’ve got more pupils in classes and the footprint on the classes is smaller. 

“So if you’re going to continue with social distancing, it means the pressure on the school site will be very great.”

When pushed by committee chair Robert Halfon on whether schools should reopen in September, she responded: “If the Government retains its social distancing rules, then they can’t.”

The NEU leader also hit back at claims from David Simmonds that unions were trying to “second-guess epidemiologists” in rejecting the government’s plans.

She said to the Tory MP: “We’re not cherry-picking evidence here, we’re trying to find where the evidence is. And we’re trying to use it.

“But, you’ve also got to remember that we, as unions, our job is to represent our membership, to make the argument for them and to challenge the Government when we feel they are not giving us clear advice.

“We would have been very happy to work collaboratively and closely with the government as they’ve done in Scotland, as they’ve done in Denmark, to plan an ordered and safe return to schools following the public health advice.”

“But any idea that this should be done, when the government hasn’t given us the information when they haven’t given us the modelling, and only did so under the threat of a judicial review letter, then we have to challenge that. 

“We live in a democracy. We don’t live in a dictatorship.”

“I’ve never been so frustrated in my entire life sitting in this committee listening to what’s been said." - Jonathan Gullis MP

Her position attracted a heated response from former-teacher-turned-MP Mr Gullis, who said: “I’ve never been so frustrated in my entire life sitting in this committee listening to what’s been said."

The Stoke-on-Trent North MP accused the NEU of running a “political campaign” by contacting members of the public and urging them to back schools staying closed. 

And he criticised the union’s representatives for advising teaching staff “not to engage” with headteachers on plans to expand teaching. 

He added: “Unions’ job is to protect staffers' health and safety.

"But it’s also the job of the union rep and unions to come to the table and speak with the Department of Education and headteachers.

“I am absolutely outraged at the sheer damage that unions have done to the teaching profession, and I think they’re a lot of questions for unions to answer on this regard. 

“Teachers have worked incredibly hard and they’ve been unbelievable, but the unions have acted in a way that’s not in the interests of working with people.”

The row comes as Boris Johnson cosiders whether or not to reduce the two-metre rule, which has drawn fire from the hospitality industry as well as his own MPs for hindering the reopening of some sectors.

The Government's scientific advisers have stressed that the rule plays an important part in halting the spread of Covid-10.

Mr Johnson said on Sunday the rule would be kept “under review for 4 July”, a date which marks the next phase of the Government’s “road map” for easing lockdown measures.

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