Local lockdowns WON’T force schools to close: Boris Johnson vows classrooms will be the last places to shut if second coronavirus wave hits UK
- Boris Johnson has said it is the ‘right thing’ to have children back full-time
- One teachers’ union said ministers should have a plan B in case of further spikes
- Scientists called for routine Covid testing of teachers and pupils if schools open
Schools will be the last places to close, even in a local lockdown, Boris Johnson vowed yesterday.
As the Government’s row with the unions escalated, the Prime Minister said getting all children back to school full-time in England next month was the ‘right thing for everybody’.
His comments, on a visit to a school in east London, came after one teachers’ union said ministers should have a plan B – such as a ‘week-on, week-off’ rota system for pupils – in case of further lockdowns and spikes in Covid-19 cases.
The Prime Minister said getting all children back to school full-time in England next month was the ‘right thing for everybody’
Mr Johnson said he hoped schools would not be forced to close as a result of local action, adding it was the ‘last thing’ that the Government wanted to do.
‘But clearly what we are doing – the way we are trying to manage the Covid pandemic – is to have local measures in place and local test and trace to introduce restrictions where that’s necessary,’ he said.
‘As we have all said, the last thing we want to do is to close schools. We think that education is the priority for the country and that is simple social justice.’
Ministers have become increasingly frustrated with the teaching unions in recent days, particularly after the National Education Union published a ‘nit-picking’ list of 200 safety demands for all schools to adhere to.
Mr Johnson said he hoped schools would not be forced to close as a result of local action, adding it was the ‘last thing’ that the Government wanted to do
Tory MP Rob Halfon, chairman of the education select committee, said: ‘I think that some of the unions are… imposing significant obstacles and significant tests that no other workplace is following.
‘If you’d had all the conditions in supermarkets that some of the unions are proposing, then perhaps you wouldn’t have had any of the supermarkets open during the lockdown. The four most important words in this are “What about the kids?”.’
The unions insist they are not trying to sabotage the back-to-school plans but are asking genuine questions about the Government’s approach and the lack of a plan B should virus cases escalate again.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: ‘This idea that demonising the trade unions lets the Government off the hook with difficult questions we are asking.
‘They ought to be facing difficult questions because we are in the middle of something extremely challenging.’
Mr Barton added: ‘We would like to see more thought given to blended learning as a back-up plan, which could be a rota system of children in for one week and then learning at home for one week. This would be better than children returning solely to remote education.’
Avis Gilmore, deputy general secretary of the National Education Union, called for a more robust test, track and trace system to be in place to ensure the welfare of pupils and school staff.
She said: ‘Government could do much more to assure schools and local authorities that, should a second spike occur, either nationally or locally, there is a clear Plan B in place.
‘This plan needs to spell out what action must be taken in a variety of situations, so that schools and colleges can make the preparations parents expect of them.’
Scientists called for routine Covid testing of teachers and pupils, alongside a robust test-and-trace system
Last night scientists called for routine Covid testing of teachers and pupils, alongside a robust test-and-trace system.
Researchers behind a report from Delve, a multidisciplinary group convened by the Royal Society, said routine testing will be necessary when the majority of children return to school.
Dr Ines Hassan, a researcher in the global health governance programme at the University of Edinburgh, said the group was recommending the widespread screening of all staff, including those who are asymptomatic.
Home-schooled children are among those who will miss out on grades this week.
They have been excluded from Ofqual’s plans because only teachers were permitted to submit assessed grades.
It is believed the majority will need to sit real exams this autumn to get their qualifications – and, due to the delay in getting their results, could be forced into a gap year before they start university.
Returning to school is a ‘minor threat to virus spread’
Schools are ‘minor players’ in the overall transmission of coronavirus, a leading expert has said.
Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said ‘we owe it to our children’ to re-open schools – or risk doing them permanent harm.
He said parents should be ‘reassured’ by growing evidence from countries including Germany, Singapore and the Netherlands, which shows ‘little significant transmission in schools’.
Professor Viner, who also sits on the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group, said returning next month was likely to ‘add little’ to the reproduction rate of infection.
Instead he warned of mounting evidence of children’s health declining from extended periods at home, prompting rising mental health problems and higher rates of obesity.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme reopening schools is one of the ‘least risky things we can do’.
He added: ‘We cannot be in a risk-free society and this is about the risk balance.
It’s very clear for them the benefits and risks, the balance is for them to be back at school.’
Professor Viner highlighted the ‘higher rates of some concerning conditions’, observed in children’s absence from school.
He added: ‘But we also know that young people aren’t getting the exercise they need, the sleep they need.
‘There is some evidence that they may be gaining weight, there’s a real wide raft of implications for children and young people.’
One of the most detailed studies yet, by Public Health England, is expected to show it is safe for schools to fully reopen.
Carried out at 100 institutions across the UK, it will say there is ‘very little evidence’ of coronavirus transmission where pupils have returned to the classroom.
While children can transmit this virus, experts believe they are not ‘super-spreaders’ as feared and are also at much lower risk of harm from the virus.
Professor Viner said: ‘I think the message is, it can never be perfectly safe nothing in life is perfectly safe, but this is one of the better things we can do. And we owe it to our children.
He added: ‘There’s always dangers with evidence but I think the evidence from around the world is starting to become convincing that for younger children, particularly primary school children, that they appear to be less likely to catch this virus, and they don’t play a big role in transmitting it.’
Teachers warn poor pupils will be hit hardest if classes stay shut
Teachers were warned last night that the poorest children will be hit hardest if schools do not reopen fully in September.
The Sutton Trust, which campaigns on social mobility, said the lockdown has already reversed ten years’ progress in closing the education gap between the rich and poor.
This is because middle-class pupils received more online teaching than poorer ones.
Chairman Sir Peter Lampl said the situation would only get worse if classrooms remained closed next month and told Boris Johnson that the need for a full return ‘overrides everything’.
The plea comes amid growing frustration from ministers that militant unions are attempting to sabotage the reopening plans.
Yesterday the Prime Minister visited a school in east London to make the point that it is a ‘moral duty’ to get children back.
Mr Johnson reportedly will only close schools as a last resort after advisers suggested that more restrictions may be needed for students to return next month.
He said it was ‘not right’ that children should spend any more time out of school, adding that it was more ‘damaging’ for pupils who have fallen further behind amid the school closures.
Sir Peter pointed to a survey carried out by the charity near the start of the school lockdown which found that 30 per cent of pupils from middle-class homes were taking part in live and recorded online lessons every day. But among the working classes, this was just 16 per cent.
At private schools, 51 per cent of primary and 57 per cent of secondary students were able to access online lessons every day – more than twice as likely as their counterparts in state schools.
There were also huge differences when it came to whether teachers collected in pupils’ work and marked it. The Sutton Trust found that 60 per cent of private schools and 37 per cent of state schools in the most affluent areas had an online platform in place to receive work. But only 23 per cent of the most deprived schools had a similar system in place.
And middle-class pupils were more likely to send work they had been set back to their teacher.
While teachers in private schools say they receive most work back, just 8 per cent say the same in the least advantaged state schools.
Sir Peter told the Mail: ‘School closures have hit poorest students the hardest. The lockdown is estimated to have reversed a decade’s worth of progress in closing the education gap between rich and poor.
‘We have seen big differences in how schools have reacted to the pandemic, both within the state sector and between independent and state schools.’
Sir Peter demanded the Government provide poorer children with laptops so if there are any local lockdowns, they will not lose out again. He said: ‘As there are likely to be more local lockdowns, it is crucial that state schools are supported to provide effective online learning. This means all pupils need to have access to the necessary technology and a stable internet connection.
‘There should also be clear minimum standards and guidance and training for teachers so they can make online provision more consistent between schools.
‘However, overriding everything is that all pupils must be back at school as soon as possible, providing of course it is safe to do so.’