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‘We need to educate our children again’ – inside the battle to re-open England’s schools

Thousands of primary school pupils will return today, but teaching unions have concerns around safety

11 min read

Thousands of children will return to primary school today in the first phase of the Government’s plan to get all pupils back in the classroom before the summer holidays. But teaching unions say they have “deep concerns” and accuse ministers of ignoring the scientific evidence. Georgina Bailey reports on the Government’s attempt to get schools back up and running – and the clash with the teachers who fear it is too early

For the first time in 10 weeks, thousands of children are returning to primary schools across England on Monday morning. Pupils in nursery, reception, year one and year six classes are going back to class, with those in other years due to follow later in the month. 

But amid fears over safety, many schools and parents will defy official advice. 

At least 15 local councils are advising schools in their areas not to re-open. Some teachers and heads fear it is still unsafe, and accuse ministers of sticking rigidly to a phased plan that is not backed by the science.

Just this weekend, unions urged the government to “draw back” from the opening, as independent scientists recommended a two-week delay until June 15th, when the infection rate will be lower.  

NASUWT, a union representing more than 300,000 teaching staff, has warned a return today is “seriously at odds with the scientific evidence released to date”, and with “the deep concerns expressed by schools, teachers and parents”.

The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, tells us the decision has been “based on the best scientific and medical advice”, and insists that welfare of children and staff is “at the heart of all considerations”. The Government says measures have been put in place to ensure safety, including extensive guidance on social distancing and hygiene measures.

But some teachers argue that it will be “impossible” to enforce distancing among four to six year-olds, and warn the measures schools are being asked to introduce are unrealistic in such a short period of time. “This was not a decision that was made with the needs and complexities of schools in mind,” one union official tells us. “This was a decision that was made for a political purpose.”

So why are teachers still so concerned? How will schools enforce distancing? And what does the science say?  

How will it work?

Children of key workers and vulnerable children of all ages have been able to attend schools throughout lockdown.

However, uptake has been low, with fewer than two in ten vulnerable children attending. In this wider opening over the next two weeks, they will be joined by children in nursery and early years childcare, those in reception and year one, and year six students. However this is not a legal requirement – and the Government has been clear that parents will not be fined for not sending their children to school.

Once there, children will form 15-pupil ‘bubbles’ in schools, with their teachers and support staff not allowed to mix with other bubbles. Breaks, lunch times, school drop-offs, and pick-ups will be staggered. Social distancing measures and intensified cleaning regimes will be implemented as much as possible.

Students in year 10 and 12 who are due to sit their GCSEs and A-Levels next year will follow on June 15, and the Government say it is their “ambition” for all primary school pupils to receive a month of face-to-face education before the summer holidays.

The Department for Education (DfE) has published guidance on social distancing and hygiene in schools. However, a survey from the National Education Union – which represents more than 461,000 members – has shown that even with significantly reduced pupil numbers, schools have struggled to enforce hygiene measures. 

Of NEU members who responded, 41% say their school cannot maintain regular handwashing, 53% reported not being offered appropriate PPE, and 31% believed the arrangements for cleaning their classroom are inadequate.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, tells The House that the decision to send younger children back first shows that the prime minister does not understand the nature of children or school.  

“Four, five and six year olds will find social distancing impossible, they need the most physical contact with teachers and support staff… the idea that you can maintain social distancing in those years – well, no one who understood schools or understood children would really think that that was a runner,” Bousted says.

Some schools and early year providers, such as those with smaller classrooms or fewer facilities, have announced that they will not be able to open on 1 June due to the difficulties of enforcing hygiene and social distancing measures at this time. The DfE have committed to working with those in the sector who cannot yet open to resolve the practical difficulties.

Some groups have said that the DfE were warned by local councils that it would require four to five weeks’ notice to open schools safely, rather than the three they were given, but Government sources insist that all stakeholders were engaged in conversations with the DfE and given sufficient notice. Unions say that the Government’s acceptance that not all primary schools will be able to open today shows that they have backed down from their original, unrealistic, plans.

It is still the Government’s “ambition” for all primary school pupils to have a month of face time with their teachers before the summer holidays. However, unions say this is completely unthought-through and demonstrates a further lack of understanding in No 10 about the practicalities of teaching and the limitations of school buildings.

“Where are you going to get double the classrooms, double the teachers, double the resource?” one union official says.

What does the science say?

Sage, the Government’s scientific advisory group, has said that the risk of coronavirus to children in schools is “very, very small, but not zero”.

However Independent Sage – a 12-strong group of scientists who has set up a working group to ‘shadow’ the official government body – say children will be at higher risk in school than at home.

They have produced their own report suggesting that the chance of a child contracting the virus in school on 1 June is 1.46%, and 0.61% at home. From 15 June, they estimate the chance of contracting the virus at school will fall to 0.72%, and 0.30% at home, leading unions to back their call to delay opening by a fortnight.  

Sir David King, the former government chief scientific adviser who now chairs the independent group, says ministers have “jumped the gun”.

The group also say the Government has not followed Sage’s advice on the model for the reopening. Sage set out a series of potential models for re-opening schools, and concluded that a rota system with alternating weeks on/off for groups of children would be the lowest risk.

However, ministers were concerned that a rota system would reduce consistency for pupils and parents, require teachers and support to also go on a rota system, increase exposure for the vulnerable children and children of key workers who would still be in school full time, and require more intensive cleaning.  

"We only found out about the plan shortly before the announcement was made" - Geoff Barton, the Association of School and College Leaders

When the Prime Minister first announced the phased return to schools beginning on the 1st June, the Government had hoped to reduce its five-stage ‘Covid Alert Level’ from 4 to 3, in time for an easing of the lockdown. However the threat level remains at 4, meaning “a high or rising level of transmission”, while ministers insist we are in the process of “transitioning from 4 to 3”.

The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, tells us that throughout the Covid-19 pandemic the Government's decisions “have been based on the best scientific and medical advice, with the welfare of children and staff at the heart of all considerations”.  

“The Prime Minister has announced that the Government’s five tests have been met, and based on all the evidence we will now move forward with our plan for a phased and cautious return of a limited number of pupils to primary schools and early years settings from Monday, and students in years 10 and 12 two weeks later,” Williamson says.

Robert Halfon, who chairs the Commons Education Committee, is supportive of the Government’s “cautious and deliberative” approach. He says opening schools is safe, even if the practicalities mean it may have to be in a “very slow” and “incremental manner”.

“We need our children educated again,” he says. “I realise that it is incredibly difficult for teachers and for support staff at this time, but from all the studies, both SAGE and the studies around the world and the WHO, and 22 EU countries who have opened their schools, it appears there is very minimal risk.”

"The Prime Minister has announced that the Government’s five tests have been met, and based on all the evidence we will now move forward with our plan" - Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on education and a former teacher, tells The House that returning children to school must be an “urgent priority”, but “not if this risks a spike in coronavirus”.

“The Government must not only ensure that public health will not be put at risk as a result of premature efforts to get children back into classrooms, but ensure that staff, parents and students have confidence in their plans,” Moran says.

"Equally, if local authorities do not believe that they can open schools safely, then it is absolutely right for them to wait until they can. Any easing of the lockdown – including reopening schools – must only happen when the whole community is reassured it’s the right thing to do.”

'It’s been a communications disaster'

While teaching unions have serious concerns about whether the science backs up the decision to open schools up more widely, and for the safety of their members, pupils and their parents, they are also unhappy about the Government's approach to talks.  

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, has said that “basic questions” the union asked of the Government, including those related to scientific evidence for re-opening, “have been interpreted as nothing short of treason.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says that while they’ve had engagement with the Department for Education throughout the crisis, they have had very little discussion on “the actual plan” for opening schools.

“We only found out about the plan shortly before the announcement was made, and though we raised immediate concerns, there was no real consultation," he says. "That is why it has landed so badly with the sector.”

The NEU echoes this, accusing ministers of adopting a ‘take-or-leave-it’ approach to negotiation. “At no point have we been given information and asked ‘do you think it’s right?’, either about the schools closing or the wider re-opening of schools,” Bousted says.

She also claims that communication with local authorities has been lacking, despite over 60% of primary schools still being part of their local authorities. “It’s been a disaster. It’s been a manual on how not to communicate on a national level or a local level, or with parents,” she adds.

One union official attributes the problems with communication and planning to decisions about schools being made in No 10 rather than in the DfE. “You go in and you meet the secretary of state for education, and really they just wander around the houses with platitudes. You’re not told anything direct, you’re not told anything concrete.”  

But Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP, chair of the Education Select Committee and a former education minister, disputes this. “That’s not my experience at all,” he says. “I’ve had discussions with secretaries of state, with ministers, they’ve come before my committee with officials, and I think it’s clear that all branches of government want the schools to go back with this phased opening.”

What next?

Everyone agrees schools must open as soon as it is safe to do so. The closure of schools has had several damaging results.

While schools have been running a skeleton operation since 23 March, remaining open to the children of key workers and vulnerable children, uptake has been low with 84% of vulnerable children not attending.

Concerns have grown about the attainment gap between more affluent and disadvantaged children through home learning, with students from middle class homes nearly twice as likely to be accessing online classes every day than working class pupils (30% and 16% respectively).

There are also concerns that the economic recovery from Covid-19 will be more challenging if those with childcare responsibilities are unable to return to work and may then be disproportionately represented in job losses.  

Halfon believes it’s vital that both the unions and the Government do not “get into an inquest about what went wrong”, but “try and come climb down from this Everest pandemic and work together to try and make things right and get our children back into schools”. He warns that after a 10 week absence it is crucial from both a safeguarding and  educational perspective.

For their part, 10 teaching unions put out a joint statement on Friday stating they had had a “productive” meeting with Williamson, where they raised concerns and “stressed the importance of monitoring the impact of returning more pupils to school and listening to the experience of school staff”.  

The Government say Monday's reopening “marks the first step in getting all children and young people back into the classroom”, and ministers still expect year 10 and 12 students to return on 15 June.

However, with parents across the country divided on whether to send their children back to school settings, and no enforcement planned, what schools will look like in the next few weeks remains to be seen.

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