Coronavirus: Unions demand assurances over 1 June school plan

2 weeks ago

Teachers’ unions are to meet the government’s scientific advisers later to seek assurances that it will be safe to open schools in England.

The education secretary wants primary schools to begin opening from 1 June.

But the National Education Union’s Kevin Courtney said parents and teachers needed to be “absolutely clear” about the “level of safety”.

Meanwhile, one of England’s biggest academy trusts says it will go ahead with opening its schools on 1 June.

Ahead of a meeting with the chief scientific adviser, chief medical officer and chief nursing officer, Mr Courtney said: “We want to hear what the science is. We want to know how much children transmit to one another and to adults.

“We also want to know what the risk is for society as a whole, and whether they now have contact tracing running well enough so that it can keep the case count low and hold it there.”

It was wrong that teachers’ leaders had been excluded from the decision-making about what would be practical in running schools in a safe way, Mr Courtney added.

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The meeting follows challenges to the Department for Education to publish the scientific evidence on which the return to school has been based.

On Friday, the Prime Minister’s spokesman reiterated that masks or protective equipment would not be expected to be worn by teachers or pupils.

This was part of the safety guidance this week that proposed teaching pupils in small groups of 15 or less and keeping them apart from other children during the school day.

The guidance recognised that keeping young children two metres apart in school would often not be realistic – and instead focused on keeping small groups of children separate and using lots of hand washing and hygiene.

An alliance of nine teachers’ unions has warned it is not yet to safe to open schools.

But an academy trust has become one of the first school groups to say that it will reopen from 1 June.

Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis trust which has 35 primary schools, says opposition to reopening is “rather middle class”.

He says teachers’ union advice is “lopsided” and fails to recognise the harm to disadvantaged children from missing school.

‘Not forcing anyone to attend’

Mr Chalke, whose schools on average have 45% of children eligible for free school meals, said: “The greatest risks for many of our children are being stuck in a council block, with no fresh air, no exercise, little or no nutritious food.”

Many of their pupils “live in cramped conditions with little digital access” and so will struggle with schools only operating online, he said.

Mr Chalke said the schools would not be “forcing anyone to attend”, either pupils or staff, and that he “respects the union’s opinion”.

Safety measures would be in place, but he stressed that the “long-term social cost” of not opening would “outweigh any short-term medical risks”.

The move by the Oasis academy trust follows a week of arguments over the safety of primary schools beginning to return from 1 June.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has warned against “scaremongering” over safety fears for going back to school.

“The best place for children to be educated and to learn is in school,” the education secretary told MPs this week, particularly for the disadvantaged who would be most likely to fall further behind.

Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers’ union, said health and safety had to be the primary consideration.

In a letter to the directors of children’s service, he wrote: “the wrong decision will result in people becoming seriously ill and dying”, adding that members reserved their right to legal action under employment laws.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said children could practise social distancing in schools and teachers could play a “really important part” in educating pupils about this, as well as hygiene.

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He said: “I know the education secretary and his team are talking continually to the unions and to teachers directly as well around making sure that we’ve got a good, safe environment.”

Geoff Barton, leader of the ASCL head teachers’ union, insisted unions did not wish to impede schools reopening.

“But we have always said that the time must be right, and there must be a clear, and robust set of guidance which ensures that this can be done in a way which is safe.”

In Wales, the First Minister Mark Drakeford has said schools would not open on 1 June.

In Scotland, it is not expected that schools will re-open before the summer holidays.

In Northern Ireland, Education Minister Peter Weir has spoken of a possible phased return of schools in September.

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